February 6, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Can US airpower stop the threats in Yemen, Iraq and Syria?

The Houthis continue to threaten shipping in the Red Sea and off the coast of Yemen.
February 6, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Can US airpower stop the threats in Yemen, Iraq and Syria?

The Houthis continue to threaten shipping in the Red Sea and off the coast of Yemen.

US Central Command has said that the United States carried out airstrikes on two Houthi drone boats on Monday, the latest in numerous US-UK strikes against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis continue to threaten shipping in the Red Sea and off the Yemeni coast, even targeting Israel.

NBC’s is the only news crew on the USS Eisenhower, the main carrier involved in the strikes. The news agency reported on Sunday that “One by one, more than two dozen aircraft – Navy F/A-18 fighter jets, E/A18 Growler radar jammers, E2 Hawkeye reconnaissance planes, as well helicopters, and tankers – roared off the deck of this aircraft carrier Saturday night to conduct joint US-British attacks on Iranian-backed Houthis. US officials declined to comment on the effectiveness of Saturday’s strikes in Yemen. On Friday, the carrier’s F/A-18 aircraft intercepted multiple drones that Houthi forces were preparing to launch, military officers told NBC News.”

The report also notes that the carrier is a “vast, 1,000-foot, 100,000-ton Nimitz-class carrier, has a crew of roughly 5,000 and is like a city on the sea,” but this is also a “vexing” mission for US pilots, NBC reported.

This, right here, is the challenge. The US is trying to stop Houthi attacks, which could mean using strikes on leadership to deter the group, using a disproportionate response. Or it could involve trying to strike and preempt the attacks by hitting missiles, drones, and launchers.

So far, the US has preferred the second approach. What this means is that it is gambling that the Houthis don’t have an inexhaustible amount of missiles and drones. It also means letting the Houthis choose the time and place to attack, and hoping US pilots are within range when that happens.

Can anything deter the Houthis or Iran?

Should this continue in its current format, will the Houthis replace and rebuild their anti-ship missiles? Will the Houthis be deterred? Iranians are the ones behind the Houthi attacks, which means the real issue is whether Iran wants the Red Sea threats to continue.

This situation is unprecedented. In the past, when Israel and Hamas fought, the conflicts did not usually expand beyond the borders of Gaza and Israel, into the West Bank.

Iran has since brought militias to Israel’s borders and operationalized them to attack from the North via Hezbollah, to close off the Red Sea to shipping, and to carry out 160 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. Iran also got the militias to attack US forces in Jordan, killing three people.

We have reached a situation where the goal is regional war. Iran is seeking to close the Red Sea to commercial ships, save for ships linked to its friends in Moscow and Beijing. As such, this is part of the wider anti-Western, anti-Israel, and anti-US strategy that Iran is putting out. The key question becomes: Can the floating “city” of the Eisenhower off the coast stop the attacks? The NBC reports leave many questions unanswered.

The US is also operating against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, having carried out attacks on 85 sites on Friday in response to the murder of three Americans in Jordan on January 27. It doesn’t appear those strikes hit significant targets, meaning that the groups still have a plethora of missiles and drones with which to continue to carry out their threats.

The US also appears to be hampered in its strikes in Iraq and Syria by the fact that some countries don’t want to participate in the strikes. Jordan assured Iraq it was not involved in the retaliation.

Many countries in the region appear to be hedging their bets on this. US key partners in the Gulf, for instance, have been concerned about US policies for years. The US pressured Saudi Arabia to end its role in fighting the Houthis in Yemen; Saudi and Iran then reconciled in a China-backed deal last year. Now, the Saudis wonder why the US pressured them to stop their war, only for the US to now strike at Yemen.

These complex factors add a lot of uncertainty to whether the US can accomplish its goals in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Will the strikes stop the attacks by the Iranian-backed forces or merely reduce some capabilities?

There will be lessons to learn, and it appears the ball is in Iran’s court for now.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy