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  • Writer's pictureThe Pinsker Centre

U.S.-U.K. Airstrikes on the Houthis: Enough to Restore Deterrence?

Report by the Pinsker Centre


In the early hours of 12 January, the U.S. and U.K. launched a widespread series of airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen in coordination with close allies. While significant after weeks of Houthi attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the airstrikes represent a limited attempt to deter the Houthis from continuing its blatantly illegal and dangerous activity against civilian vessels in a vital shipping lane.


Who are the Houthis?


            The Houthi militia, officially “Ansar Allah,” is a Yemeni Shia extremist group that captured the western part of the country, including the capital Sana’a, during a bloody civil war starting in 2014.[1] The movement’s slogan and banner reads the words “Allah is Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.”[2] Since the fall of Sana’a and the exile of the elected government, the Houthis have restricted the rights of the people living in their territory with widespread slavery, executions, and an abysmal record on women’s rights.


            The Houthis, part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” receive considerable military and financial support from the Islamic Republic. Since their insurgency started in the northern part of Yemen, in Saada, shipments from Iran containing missiles, small arms, and manufacturing components have repeatedly smuggled to the group despite international sanctions. Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy and listed terrorist organization, has both inspired the rebels and directly funded them through a sophisticated financial crime network.[3] The Houthis, with their Iranian patronage, pose a threat to the wider region and the world through repeated attacks on U.S. allies and civilians, such as the 2017 attack on Saudi Arabia’s central civilian airport with brazen use of Iranian military technology.[4]


The Houthi threat persists today, and their opposition to international norms has gotten louder. After the Hamas massacres on October 7th in Southern Israel, the Houthis quickly announced their support for the terror organization and initiated a series of attacks on Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat.[5] The attacks by the group have not been limited to just the Red Sea: they have in the past launched drone and missile attacks at targets in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Gulf of Aden.[6]



Why did the U.S. and U.K. attack the Houthis?


            Starting in mid-October, the Houthis started launching drone and missile strikes against commercial shipping in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a crucial choke-point for ships passing through the Suez Canal. Despite claiming that the strikes were aimed against Israeli ships, not a single vessel targeted so far has had any connection to Israel. Freedom of navigation in international waterways is a core tenant of international law, and after repeated warnings from Western powers and multiple UN Security Council resolutions condemning their indiscriminate strikes, the U.K., U.S., and partner nations launched strikes after a final ignored ultimatum. Following the establishment of a multinational task force defending civilian ships, the recent airstrikes aim to re-establish deterrence with the Houthis to prevent further disruption of civilian shipping.



Will the airstrikes deter the Houthis from further attacks?


            According to details released by the Pentagon, the U.S. and U.K. targeted over 60 Houthi military targets with over 100 guided missiles and bombs, with no civilian casualties.[7] Such a widespread attack will certainly degrade the Houthis’ capability to wage war against merchant shipping, but it is yet to be clear if the airstrikes were enough to deter the rebel militia from further attacks. Houthi leadership has signaled that they still intend to defy Western warnings against further strikes in the Red Sea and promised retaliation. The strikes certainly delivered a strong blow to the Houthis, but they clearly were not intended to destroy the group. As of now, however, time will tell if the strikes will be sufficient to deter further attacks.

[1] James Hookway, “Who Are the Houthis? What to know about U.S., U.K. Strikes in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2024,

[2] Bruce Riedel, “Who are the Houthis, and why are we at war with them?” Brookings Institute, 18 December 2017,

[3] Erika Solomon, “Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthis open up on links,” The Financial Times, 8 May 2015,

[4] Zachary Cohen, Richard Roth, and Elise Labott, “Haley: Missile debris ‘proof’ of Iran’s UN violations,” CNN, 14 December 2017,

[5] Emanuel Fabian, AFP, “US shoots down 12 Houthi attack drones, 5 missiles; Israeli jet downs Eilat-bound UAV,” The Times of Israel, 26 December 2023,

[6] James Hookway, “Who Are the Houthis? What to know about U.S., U.K. Strikes in Yemen.”

[7] Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, “AFCENT Commander Statement on Strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen,” U.S. Air Forces Central [PRESS RELEASE], 12 January 2024,,systems%2C%20production%20facilities%2C%20and%20air.

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