Houthi forces in Yemen vowed on Friday to retaliate for an American-led barrage of military strikes, as the Middle East went on alert for more escalation that could expand the conflict and further disrupt critical shipping routes between Europe and Asia.
The predawn strikes on Friday, with missiles and warplanes launched by the United States and Britain, came in response to intensifying attacks on commercial vessels and warships in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthi militia, which has said it was acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas.
A military spokesman for the Houthis, Yahya Saree, said in a post on social media that the U.S.-led strikes would “not go unanswered and unpunished.” He said they had killed at least five members of the Houthi forces, an armed group that controls northern Yemen, including the capital, Sana.
The American and British forces fired more than 150 missiles and bombs at several dozen targets in Yemen, chosen specifically to damage the Houthis’ ability to imperil shipping — weapons storage areas, radars and missile and drone launch sites — U.S. officials said. It was the first Western assault after repeated warnings by the United States and its allies that the Houthis and Iran must halt the attacks at sea or face consequences, only to see them increase.
“I would expect that they will attempt some sort of retaliation,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told reporters on a conference call on Friday, adding that would be a mistake. “We simply are not going to be messed with here.”
John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said on Friday that the attacks, ordered by President Biden, had not been intended to ignite a wider regional war.
“We’re not interested in a war with Yemen — we’re not interested in a conflict of any kind,” he said. “In fact, everything the president has been doing has been trying to prevent any escalation of conflict, including the strikes last night.”
Mr. Kirby said that everything that the United States hit was a “valid, legitimate military target.”
The British prime minister’s office said that no further strikes against Houthi targets were currently planned but the situation would be kept under review.
Military analysts on Friday were still assessing the results of the barrage, but General Sims said the strikes had achieved their objective of damaging the Houthis’ ability to launch the kind of complex drone and missile attack they conducted on Tuesday.
U.S. and British forces hit more than 60 targets in 16 locations with more than 100 precision-guided munitions in a first wave of strikes, General Sims and other officials said. About 30 to 60 minutes later, a second wave hit dozens more targets in 12 additional locations with more than 50 weapons, they said.
Casualties were probably minimal because of the hour and the remote locations of many of the targets, General Sims said. He sidestepped questions about whether the Houthis had been able to move people and equipment out of harm’s way beforehand because of widespread news reports that the strikes were imminent.
The consequences of the tensions in the Red Sea have spread far beyond the Middle East. A number of commercial ships headed for the Suez Canal changed course after the American-led strikes. The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, a trade association, said shipping companies had been advised by the U.S.-led coalition to avoid the Bab al Mendab, the narrow strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, for “several days.”
The Suez Canal, which handles more than 20,000 ships a year, providing billions of dollars in transit fees for Egypt, has seen traffic slashed as hundreds of ships have diverted their journeys to avoid the canal and the Red Sea, taking the much longer route around the southern tip of Africa, adding from one to three weeks.
Mr. Biden, in confirming the attacks on Thursday night — Friday morning in Yemen — said 2,000 ships had been forced to divert since mid-November.
In the three months since the Houthis began attacking commercial ships, the price of shipping a standard 40-foot container between China and Northern Europe more than doubled to $4,000 from $1,500, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research organization.
The president called the strikes a “clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes.”
British warplanes took part in the strikes, and Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands provided logistics, intelligence and other support, according to U.S. officials.
The attacks prompted large protests in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, and even some American allies in the Arab world said they worried that the attacks would not deter the Houthis and could further inflame a region seething over Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Oman, a U.S. ally that has mediated talks with the Houthis, criticized the strikes and expressed its “deep concern.”
Saudi Arabia, which is wary of upending a fragile cease-fire in Yemen between the Houthis and the internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government, said it was following the situation in the Red Sea with “extreme concern.” After spending years and billions of dollars on Yemen’s civil war, the Saudis have sought to pull back from the conflict.
“The kingdom confirms the importance of protecting the security and stability of the Red Sea region,” the Saudi government said in a statement, adding a call for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation.”
Russia requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday to discuss the U.S.-led strikes, according to a diplomat from France, which holds the rotating council presidency this month. The session is scheduled for Friday afternoon and will be closed consultations, according to the diplomat. On Wednesday, the Council adopted a resolution that condemned Houthi attacks in the Red Sea but did not authorize any action in response.
Analysts who study the Houthis said on Friday that the American-led airstrikes could play into the group’s agenda and might be unlikely to stop the group’s attacks.
“This was not a miscalculation by the Houthis,” said Hannah Porter, a senior research officer at ARK Group, a British company that works in international development. “This was the goal. They hope to see an expanded regional war, and they are eager to be on the front lines of that war.”
Within hours of the strikes, a senior Houthi official said that the United States and Britain would soon realize that they had engaged in “the biggest folly in their history.”
“Yemen is not an easy military opponent that can be subdued quickly,” the official, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, said on social media. “It is ready to enter a long-term battle that will change the direction of the region and the world.”
The war in Gaza has catapulted the Houthis, whose ideology has long included hostility toward the United States and Israel, to unlikely prominence. Part of the group’s slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews.” Their attacks in the Red Sea and their support for the Palestinian cause have gained them popularity in the Arab world.
The group, which espouse a religious ideology inspired by a sect of Shiite Islam, has honed its military capabilities through years of civil war. In 2014, it took over Sana and repelled a Saudi-led coalition intended to oust it, deepening one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises while leaving the Houthis in power in northern Yemen. There, they have created an impoverished proto-state that they rule with an iron fist.
“They calculate that there aren’t many valuable targets that the U.S. and U.K. can strike, as the country is already in ruins,” said Abdullah Baabood, an Omani senior nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Therefore, they will not hesitate to keep testing the situation and escalating the conflict.”
Ms. Porter agreed that the strikes were “extremely unlikely” to stop the group’s Red Sea attacks. “The Houthis are very comfortable operating in a wartime environment,” she said. “They are more successful as a military group than they are as a government.”
The strikes could also help the Houthis with domestic politics, said Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research group. Direct confrontation with the West provides “another ‘foreign enemy’ pretext to distract the public from their failing rebel governance that does not deliver services,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen have died from fighting, hunger and disease since a Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in 2015, supported with American weapons and military assistance.
Aid groups and Yemeni analysts have warned that the new strikes, combined with the escalation in the Red Sea, could worsen the economic crisis in Yemen, increasing fuel and food costs and deepening hunger.
“Yemenis across the country have woken up fearing a return to conflict,” said Jared Rowell, Yemen country director for the International Rescue Committee. “Nine years of war have taken an immense toll, leaving more than 18 million people — over half the population — in urgent need of assistance.”
Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Raja Abdulrahim, Zach Montague, Saeed Al-Batati, Stanley Reed, Farnaz Fassihi, Stephen Castle and Gaya Gupta.