Attacks on ships and US drones show Yemen’s Houthis can still fight despite US-led airstrikes

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Despite a month of U.S.-led airstrikes, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels remain able to launch significant attacks. This week they seriously damaged a ship in a crucial situation and apparently shot down a US drone worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Houthis’ continued attacks on shipping through the crucial Red Sea corridor – the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – against the backdrop of Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip underscore the challenges in stopping the guerrilla-style attacks they have used since 2014 to hold Yemen’s capital and much of the country’s war-ravaged north.

The campaign has strengthened the position of the rebels in the Arab world. despite their human rights violations in a years-long stalemate of war with several US allies in the region. Analysts warn that the longer the Houthis’ attacks continue, the greater the risk of disruptions to international shipping weigh on the global economy.

On Monday, both Houthis and Western officials acknowledged one of the most serious attacks on shipping by the rebels. The Houthis targeted the Belizean-flagged bulk carrier Rubymar with two anti-ship ballistic missiles, one of which struck the ship, the US military’s Central Command said.

The Rubymar, which reported propulsion problems in November, apparently became disabled, forcing its crew to abandon ship.

Houthi military spokesman Brig. General Yahya Saree claimed on Monday evening that the Rubymar had sunk. However, satellite images from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Rubymar still floating just north of the Bab el-Mandeb as of 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday. A large oil slick followed the ship.

The Rubymar attack was one of the Houthi rebels’ few direct, serious hits on shipping. Another direct hit followed at the end of January a tanker flying the flag of the Marshall Islands is on fire for hours.

Meanwhile, the Houthis early Tuesday released images of what they described as a surface-to-air missile downing a US MQ-9 Reaper drone off the coast of Hodeida, a Yemeni port city they control on the Red Sea. The footage included a video of men dragging pieces of debris from the water to a beach.

Images of the debris, including texts in English and what appeared to be electrical equipment, appeared to match known parts of the Reaper, commonly used in attack and reconnaissance missions. A US defense official acknowledged Tuesday that an MQ-9 “crashed off the coast of Yemen,” without elaborating.

In November, the Pentagon acknowledged the loss of an MQ-9, also shot down by the rebels over the Red Sea.

Since the Houthis took over the north of the country and the capital Sanaa in 2014, the US military has lost at least four drones to rebel shootings – in 2017, 2019 and this year.

Meanwhile, the Houthis claimed an attack on the Sea Champion, a Greek-flagged US bulk carrier bound for Aden, Yemen, carrying grain from Argentina.

The rebels separately claimed an attack on the Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier Navis Fortuna, a ship that had sailed to Italy with an “all-Chinese” crew to avoid being targeted. Private security company Ambrey reported that the ship suffered minor damage in a drone attack.

The US shot down 10 Houthi drones with bombs in the past day, as well as a cruise missile headed for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Laboon, Central Command said on Tuesday. The US military also carried out attacks on a Houthi surface-to-air missile launcher and a drone ahead of the launch.

The Houthis acknowledged the drone strikes and claimed other attacks that were not immediately recognized by the West.

Since November, rebels have repeatedly attacked ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters due to Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. They have often targeted ships with weak or no apparent ties to Israel, endangering shipping on a key trade route between Asia, the Middle East and Europe. These ships are included at least one with cargo for Iranthe Houthis’ main benefactor.

The European Union has launched its own campaign to protect shipping, with member France saying on Tuesday it had shot down two Houthi drones in the Red Sea overnight.

So far, not a single American sailor or pilot has been injured by the Houthis since America launched its airstrikes against the rebels in January. However, the US continues to lose tens of millions of dollars worth of drones and fire millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles to counter the Houthis, who use much cheaper weapons that experts believe are largely supplied by Iran.

Based on US military statements, US and allied forces destroyed at least 73 missiles of various types during their month-long campaign, as well as 17 drones, 13 bomb-laden drone boats and one explosive underwater drone. count. These figures do not include the initial joint US and British strikes of January 11 that started the campaign. The US military also shot down dozens of missiles and drones that had been in the air since November.

The Houthis have not provided much information about their losses, although they have admitted that at least 22 of their fighters were killed in the American-led attacks. Insurgents, including the Houthis and allied tribes, number about 20,000 fighters in Yemen, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. They can operate in small units, far away from military bases, making them more difficult to target.

The Houthis may view the costs as offset by their sudden fame in an Arab world outraged by Israel’s killings of women and civilians in Gaza.

In the past, others — including the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — have used the plight of Palestinians to “justify their actions and gain support,” wrote Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“It legitimizes the actions of the Houthis in the eyes of those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, distracts from the more immediate issues related to the conflict in Yemen and the failure of Houthi governance, and potentially broadens the base of their support beyond the borders of Yemen.” Alasrar added.

If Houthi attacks continue, it could force the US to intensify and expand its counterattacks in the already volatile Middle East.

“Without a ceasefire in Gaza, the Houthis could be tempted to further escalate against US interests in the Red Sea and in the region,” wrote Eleonora Ardemagni, a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies .

For Washington, “deterrence options” are becoming increasingly limited, she added.

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