U.S.-Led Strikes Leave Yemen Back on the Brink of War

The explosions woke Ali Al-Sunaidar and his children in the middle of the night — a familiar feeling after years of war.

He knew that the ancient mud-brick buildings in Yemen’s capital, Sana, could collapse under the pressure released by bombings, so he opened the windows in his home, letting in the winter air.

“We were terrified and anxious,” said Mr. Al-Sunaidar, a photojournalist in Sana, after dozens of American-led airstrikes hit Yemen on Friday local time, targeting the Houthi militia that controls much of the country’s north. “We’ve been living in tension, dread and horror for the last nine years.”

A day later, the United States struck again, bombing a radar facility in Yemen, U.S. officials said.

For nearly a decade, Yemen has been at war, pummeled by a Saudi-led military coalition supplied with American bombs in an effort to defeat the Houthis — a once-scrappy tribal militia backed by Iran that has evolved into a de facto government in northern Yemen. The coalition expected swift victory. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have died from fighting, hunger and disease, and since the coalition pulled back several years ago, partly because of international pressure, the Houthis have only deepened their grip on power.

The Houthi militia in Yemen, strategically located at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has propelled itself into an unlikely global spotlight in recent weeks as it has sown chaos in the Red Sea, attacking commercial ships and hobbling global trade. The Houthis have portrayed their campaign of missiles and drone attacks as a righteous battle to force Israel to end its siege on Gaza.

Now, with an American-led coalition bombing Houthi military installations in an attempt to halt the ship attacks, Yemenis say they feel a profound sense of déjà vu.

“The Saudis tried that path in Yemen for nine years, and clearly it didn’t work,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The strikes will not stop the Houthis from further attacks in the Red Sea — if anything, rather the opposite.”

The Houthis swept into Sana in 2014 and ousted the Yemeni government, espousing a religious ideology inspired by a sect of Shiite Islam. They have not only survived the war that followed but also thrived, honing sharper military skills and ensconcing themselves in northern Yemen, where they have set up an impoverished quasi-state that they control with an iron fist.

Despite efforts to deter them, the Houthis have refused to back down, vowing to retaliate and welcoming the prospect of war with the United States with open delight.

“Yemen is not an easy military opponent that can be subdued quickly,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, said in a post on the social media platform X after the American-led strikes. “It is ready to enter a long-term battle that will change the direction of the region and the world.”

Military analysts say the Houthis have amassed a diverse array of anti-ship weaponry, incorporating both cruise and ballistic missiles into their arsenal, as well as an assortment of one-way attack drones. Pentagon officials say the Houthi missiles have a range up to 1,200 miles, within striking distance of Israel.

The U.S. military’s Central Command described the drone and missile barrage fired from Houthi-controlled territory last Tuesday as “a complex attack.” While the missiles pose little threat to advanced Western warships with sophisticated defenses, they are a menace to commercial vessels, even when fired indiscriminately, analysts said.

Anti-ship missiles, along with drones and speedboats, “have become the group’s weapons of choice in its ongoing campaign against shipping in the Red Sea,” Fabian Hinz, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote this past week.

Three weeks ago, the U.N. announced a potential “road map” to peace for Yemen. Now, Yemenis worry that instead of the war quieting down, it is entering a new, even more complicated phase.

“The military escalation in Yemen and the Red Sea poses a threat to people in Yemen and the stability of the wider region,” said Jared Rowell, Yemen country director for the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization.

The Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign and blockade against the Houthis had already helped make Yemen one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Analysts and aid organizations have warned that any further escalation as a result of the recent strikes will only deepen Yemen’s economic woes, increasing fuel and food prices and worsening hunger.

But for the Houthis, the prospect of war with the United States is a fulfillment of their official narrative, built around hostility toward Israel and the West.

The Houthis are an important arm of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance,” which includes armed groups across the Middle East. But Yemeni analysts say they view the militia as a complex Yemeni group, rather than just an Iranian proxy.

U.S. officials and those from allied Western governments said the Houthis’ continuing attacks on ships left them with little choice but to respond.

The strikes on Friday in Yemen sent a “very clear message” that Britain and the United States would act to keep shipping lanes open, David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, told NBC, saying they showed that “if warnings aren’t heeded, consequences follow.”

Pentagon officials emphasized that they had sought to avoid any civilian casualties, while a Houthi military spokesman said that five of its fighters had been killed.

Still, the Western attack is likely to “increase anti-Americanism” in Yemen and bolster the Houthis’ popularity as the group capitalizes on Yemeni opposition to foreign intervention, said Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organization. In essence, there is now “another ‘foreign enemy’ pretext to distract the public from their failing rebel governance that does not deliver services or pay salaries,” he said.

In the Yemeni city of Taiz — which is under control of the internationally recognized government — Mansour Ali, a bus driver, said he applauded the Houthi ship attacks because he believed they were carried out “in solidarity with our Palestinian brethren.”

“I think America and Britain targeted them because of their stance on Palestine,” Mr. Ali said.

Some American allies in the region, including Qatar and Oman, had warned the United States that bombing the Houthis could be a mistake, fearing that it would do little to deter them and would deepen regional tensions. They have argued that focusing on reaching a cease-fire in Gaza would remove the Houthis’ stated impetus for the attacks.

“It is impossible not to denounce that an allied country resorted to this military action, while meanwhile, Israel is continuing to exceed bounds in its bombardment, brutal war and siege on Gaza without any consequence,” the Foreign Ministry of Oman said on Friday in a statement.

Some Emirati and Saudi pundits have also criticized the American approach toward the Houthis, arguing that the international pressure for the Saudi-led coalition to pull back several years ago — which came after the country reached the brink of famine — had stymied the campaign to defeat the Houthis, leaving them emboldened.

“Some of the policies of the international community toward Yemen contributed to the survival and strengthening of the Houthi militias and encouraged them to commit more hostile actions,” Yemen’s internationally recognized government said in a statement on Friday.

The government — which has little power on the ground in Yemen — said it held the Houthis responsible for “dragging the country into a military confrontation” and argued that the only way to ensure the security of the Red Sea would be to restore Yemen’s “legitimate state institutions.”

Among the few groups in the Arabian Peninsula likely to welcome the strikes is the Southern Transitional Council, an Emirati-backed armed separatist group that controls much of southern Yemen.

In an interview days before the strikes, Amr Al-Bidh, a senior official for the group, criticized the U.N. peace process — arguing that it risked further empowering the Houthis — and said that his group would be eager to join in an international military intervention against the Houthis.

“We know that we can’t get rid of the Houthis,” he said. “But at least let’s weaken them — put them on the back foot.”

But in Sana, Mr. Al-Sunaidar, the photojournalist, said that the years of drawn-out strife had taken a toll, especially for young Yemenis. He lives with his 2-year-old twin daughters and his two brothers, each of whom has three children.

Before the war, children would become excited when they saw a plane overhead, he said. “The children would wave to it,” Mr. Al-Sunaidar said. “Now they cover their ears in horror.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Stephen Castle from London.