The U.S. Must Increase Strikes Against the Houthis

Delilah Hirshland, Apr 7, 2024

Since the start of the Yemeni civil war, the Houthi militia has been a cancer in the Middle East. With over 200,000 dead and many more displaced, this crisis, initiated by the Houthis has allowed the militia group to operate with extreme influence in the region. Domestically, Houthi forces have stolen food and medical aid from suffering Yemeni civilians in addition to kidnapping, torturing, and murdering them [1]. Across borders, the Houthis have recently committed acts of piracy against commercial ships along the Red Sea which has had the dial effect of disrupting global trade and threatening marine ecosystems. In the past couple of months, the U.S. and the U.K. have launched a series of strikes against Houthi groups along the coast of Yemen–a targeted response to the Houthi threat that has become essential not only for the stability of the region but also to uphold larger principles of international peace and maritime security [2]. The United States and the United Kingdom are right to do these strikes, but these actions must serve to be purely as a precursor to a larger, and more consequential, war against the Houthis.


The Houthis, officially Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), are a militant group that emerged in the 1990s, in response to the growing influence of the state of Saudi Arabia's influence in the greater Middle East as well as to a feeling of disenfranchised in the Sunni majority country of Yemen. This terror group has been an opponent of the Yemeni government, and its leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, due to accusations of corruption as well as their occasional pro-Western opinions; the latter are evidenced by his support for the United States against Saddam Hussein during the 2003 Iraqi invasion. This opposition led the Houthis to ultimately overthrow Saleh during the Arab Spring of 2011 and execute him six years later [3]. In 2014, the group successfully took Yemen’s capital, and ever since the country has been locked in endless conflict. Under Houthi-controlled territories of the country, the humanitarian situation has been particularly bad. The group has planted mines indiscriminately in civilian areas, committed sexual violence against women, tortured prisoners, and much more [4]. In response to perceived Houthi threats to Sunni factions in the region, Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan led a coalition against the Houthis in 2015 that produced catastrophic results –conservative numbers estimate 20,000 civilian deaths from these attacks alone. Saudi forces also helped establish a Naval Blockade, which took the lives of thousands more, by restricting civilian access to food and medicine [5]. In contrast, America’s recent strikes have been more precise in their approach with their militant targets, not civilians [6]. It would be a mistake to continue to allow Saudi Arabia, with its deplorable human rights record, to continue to launch its counter-offensive in Yemen.


Throughout their existence, the Houthis have gained military and economic support from Iran. The relationship between Iran and the Houthi rebels is primarily based on shared ideological and religious affinities, as both entities adhere to the Shia branch of Islam. The Islamic Republic has given the Houthis millions of dollars a year as well as supplying them with weapons that have been used to target Saudi and Yemen civilian areas, which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths [7]. Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, has also supplied the group with military resources. Recently, Iran has heavily increased their financial and military support supply to various terrorist groups across the Middle East including support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria [7]. Stopping the Houthis from wielding such influence, as they currently do, is vital to curbing Iranian influence in the region. 


The latest airstrikes by American and British forces targeting Houthi military targets come in response to the Houthis launching attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea starting in November of last year. Major companies have had to redirect their journey and instead travel around Africa, adding weeks to their voyage. These delays have caused a 1.3% decrease in world trade in December 2023 alone and continue to impact world markets [8]. The United States and the U.K. have responded, with the launching of 36 airstrikes since last November. However, these strikes have been largely ineffective, as the Houthis continue their attacks on ships with their unaffected military capabilities their military capabilities have been unharmed; even President Biden, himself, admitted to these strikes' lack of effectiveness [8]. This response has led to some raising alarms claiming that the U.S. is involving itself in a problem that it cannot fix. Another argument that has been made by both Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress is constitutionality; critics argue that these strikes are not permissible due to Article One of the Constitution, which states that the President must get the approval of Congress before going to war. This law was underlined by the passing of the 1973 War Powers Act, which passed following President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. However, there are exceptions; the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under both the Obama and Trump administrations claimed there were two circumstances when the president could exercise power without the authority of Congress [9]. The first is if the President reasonably determines action serves "important national interests.” Considering that the Houthis have targeted American cargo ships throughout the Red Sea, these assaults clearly pose a significant threat to our national interest. The second is if the "nature, scope, and duration of the conflict must not rise to the level of a full-scale war.” Given that both the U.S. and the U.K. have ruled out sending additional group troops into Yemen, it is extremely unlikely that we see an escalation that would qualify as a “full-scale war” [10]. 


So how can Biden, as well as our allies, halt Houthi terrorism? In January, the Biden administration re-designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization; this move comes as a major policy change from the White House, as they previously removed them from the international terrorist list [10]. Initially a Trump policy, the addition of the Houthis to the terrorism list was a controversial decision for many reasons, the biggest being the claim that it would escalate an already deadly situation in Yemen. However, these claims have proven to be false, as stripping the Houthis from the terrorism list did not halt their activities, and the world has witnessed an increase in Houthi terrorism since the start of the Biden administration [10]. While this step signals that the Biden administration is taking this crisis more seriously, it should be followed by increased use of force, of measurable consequence, on military targets. Actions against the Houthis must be escalated in order to ensure peace and stability throughout the region. 


[1] Robinson, Kali. “Yemen’s Tragedy: War, Stalemate, and Suffering.” Council on Foreign Relations. May 1st, 2023.

[2] Edwards, Christian. “Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea?” CNN. February 4th, 2024.

[3] Riedel, Bruce. “Who are the Houthis, and why are we at war with them?” Brookings Institute. December 17th, 2017.

[4] “Crimes committed by the Houthi militia in Yemen.” United Nations. August 12th, 2021.

[5] Ottaway, David. “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Quagmire.” Wilson Center. December 11th, 2015.

[6] Miller, Zeke, Madhani, Aamer, Copp, Tara. “US forces strike Houthi sites in Yemen as Biden says allied action hasn’t yet stopped ship attacks.” AP News. January 19th, 2024.

[7] Lane, Ashley. “Iran’s Islamist Proxies in the Middle East.” Wilson Center. September 12th, 2023.

[8] Wallace, Paul, Longley, Alex. “How Red Sea Crisis Raises, Inflation, Supply Chain Worries Anew.”
Bloomberg. January 24th, 2024.

[9] Norton, Tom. “Did Joe Biden Violate the Constitution With Yemen Strikes? What We Know.” Newsweek. January 12th, 2024.

[10] Hansler, Jennifer. “Biden administration re-designates Houthis as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” CNN. January 17th, 2024.