The U.S. launched missiles into rebel-controlled territory inside Yemen late Wednesday night, the first time the U.S. has directly made such an attack in the Yemen war. The strikes targeted radar sites along the coast.
A funeral in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a was hit by an airstrike Saturday, killing more than 140 people. A Saudi-led, anti-rebel coalition is the most likely culprit (they denied it, but U.S. officials told the Washington Post they don’t buy the denial). The heavy death toll has resulted new implications for the United States, which backs the Saudi coalition against the Houthi rebels.
The attack angered locals, as more than 4,000 civilians have been killed since bombing started in March 2015. So many people are being killed by the airstrikes that the Red Cross began donating morgues to local hospitals to help managing the overwhelming number of dead.
While most of the anger is directed at Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, there is also heavy animus toward the U.S. for its military support of the coalition. Congress has taken note of Saudi crimes in Yemen, but the Senate recently voted down a bill that would block $1.15 billion in arms sales to the Kingdom.
Saturday’s attack hit the funeral of the Houthi rebel commander, who have received support from Iran in the past, but are not Iranian proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Houthis responded by targeting an American vessel in the Red Sea.
“Within hours of the airstrike on the funeral, a missile was launched from Houthi-controlled territory over Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia and two more were fired at the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, and the USS Ponce, an amphibious staging base, that were in the Red Sea,” the Washington Post reported. The missiles did not make contact with the American ship.
The attack drew a response from warhawk Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who said the U.S. military should “retaliate swiftly and decisively.” He linked the attack to Iranian aggression.
Navy spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis also said the Navy would retaliate.“Anybody who takes action, fires against U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters, does so at their own peril,” he told the Military Times on Monday.
The ship did immediately fire back. “The 510-foot-long Mason fired three surface-to-air missiles — including two high-tech, long-range SM-2 missiles — and launched a radar decoy in attempt to first destroy, then distract, the incoming Houthi munitions,” the Daily Beast reported.
On Wednesday night, a U.S. Navy destroyer sent tomahawk cruise missiles at radar instillations in Houthi territory. “Initial assessments indicated that all three targets were destroyed,” an unnamed U.S. official told NPR.
The attack signals an uptick in American involvement in Yemen. So far, America’s connection to the war has only been to support Saudi Arabia’s coalition with military aid, including American-made cluster bombs, that have killed many civilians in Yemen. The wide scale destruction drew plenty of criticism to Saudi and Congress witnessed bipartisan support for bills trying to put measures on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but not enough to make sure it passed.
“The U.S. should not be aiding [this coalition] in massive civilian atrocities,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) told ThinkProgress last month.
European governments and human rights groups have also been critical of Saudi Arabia in recent months. Some of the criticism has led Saudi to look for new allies, but analysts believe the Saudi-U.S. relationship is too beneficial to both parties and to undergo much change.
“The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is based on the U.S. administration and not on Congress — that’s neither here nor there,” Dr. Zubair Iqbal, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and an expert on Saudi Arabia, told ThinkProgress last month. “The position will remain stagnant until there is a new president and then they will think very hard about what they want to do.”
This story has been updated to reflect events from late Wednesday.