Washington, allies issue final warning to Iran-backed Houthis over Red Sea attacks

Former CENTCOM commander says limited US responses encourage militias to continue to push the limits of bad behavior

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The US on Wednesday led a final call for the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen to halt attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, warning that there would be “consequences” if they persisted.

“Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” read a joint statement signed by 12 countries.

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“The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement added.

The US military says that the Houthis have conducted at least 24 attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea since Nov. 19. The latest attack was on Tuesday when the US military said Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen.

Wednesday’s joint statement condemned the “significant escalation” over the past week of Houthi attacks, which threaten one of the world’s most critical waterways. The statement was signed by the US, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, and UK.

“These attacks threaten innocent lives from all over the world and constitute a significant international problem that demands collective action,” the joint statement said.

In the weeks following Houthi attacks on commercial tankers that it said would be targeted for their work with Israel, the US formed a naval task force to protect the ships.

The former head of the US Central Command, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, said the naval task force was a way to try to mitigate the risk but added that “without direct action consequences, it will likely not curb the [Houthis’] actions in a more rapid fashion.”

Votel said the naval task force was a way to try to mitigate the risk but added that “without direct action consequences, it will likely not curb the [Houthis’] actions in a more rapid fashion.”

Despite underwhelming public participation from countries around the globe, with only one Arab participant, the US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian for the Red Sea. The task force was an expansion of an existing US-led task force, Combined Task Force 153, which currently has its base in Bahrain. CTF-153 currently has 39 member nations.

US defense and military officials have been deliberating over a response to Iran-backed attacks across the Middle East, including those carried out by the Houthis, as they await the green light from the Biden administration, officials and sources familiar with the matter have told Al Arabiya English.

“The Houthis, at Iran’s urging, are trying to push as far as they can to determine where our true ‘redlines’ exist,” Votel told Al Arabiya English. “Strategically and operationally, we are accepting a lot of risks,” he said.

American forces in Iraq and Syria have also come under attack over 100 times since Oct. 17.

Thousands of US troops are based in the region, and any retaliation to US strikes could put them in danger immediately. Nevertheless, the US military is prepared to strike back at the attacks as well as Yemen’s Houthis for shooting down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone and for hijacking and attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Votel said the limited US responses in Syria and Iraq so far have encouraged Iran-backed militias to continue to push the limits of bad behavior.

The former CENTCOM commander also pointed to other US adversaries watching how Washington responds.

“I would say that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and violent extremist organizations are paying attention to how we are responding to this situation and will attempt to draw conclusions of their own,” he said.

Read more: US assessing military responses to Iran-backed attacks in Middle East

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