US cruise missiles were fired at three rebel-controlled radar sites in Yemen on Thursday, marking America’s first direct involvement in the civil war that has embroiled the country since March, 2015.
The attack, authorized by President Obama, launched US Tomahawk missiles at sites near Ras Isa, north of Mukha and near Khoka, Reuters reported, and came four days after two missiles fired by the Houthi rebels fell short of a US navy ship (the USS Mason) in the Red Sea. It also follows numerous Houthi attacks on UAE ships in recent weeks.
Thursday’s attack, US officials claimed, was a defensive response to previous Houthi strikes.
The rebel radar sites targeted by the US had been active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea, a US officials said on condition of anonymity, adding that target sites were in remote areas with a low risk of civilian casualties.
“We will make sure that anybody who interferes with freedom of navigation and puts US Navy ships at risk understands they do so at their own peril,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, speaking on behalf of the Defense Department before the attack.
Houthi rebels, for their part, denied charges that they targeted the USS Mason, referring to such claims as “baseless.”
While US forces have long been present within Yemen, their role thus far has been limited to drone surveillance and aerial attacks against suspected Al-Qaeda units on the ground, resulting in scores of civilian casualties. Similarly, while the US has been active in supporting the Saudi-led coalition, it has until now demurred from taking direct military action against the rebels.
The Houthi rebels, who have been active in Yemen for over a decade are a fundamentalist Shia-led movement that took root in the country’s capital in 2015, following years of conflict after a failed political transition in 2011. With the help of allies, Houthis now control the country’s capital, Sana’a as well as large swaths of territory in the North, while forces loyal to former President Abd Rabbbuh Mansur Hadi control most of the South. The fighting has devastated the country–already one of the poorest of the region–claiming over 6,800 lives and pushing the country to the brink of humanitarian disaster.
While the latest US strike constitutes a distinct turning point in American involvement, US officials faced criticism last week for their continued support of the Saudi-led coalition, after Saudi fighter jets repeatedly bombed a reception hall where many had gathered after a funeral. The attack wreaked havoc on the scene, killing over 100 people and injuring over 550.