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U.S., Britain launched military strikes against Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen


The U.S. and Britain launched military strikes against Houthi-controlled areas inside Yemen. President Joe Biden said the strikes were a response to reckless and unprecedented attacks by the Houthis on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. At least 27 vessels have been targeted by the Iranian-backed group since November in what the Houthis say is an effort to pressure Israel to stop its attacks on Hamas in Gaza. The Houthis have vowed to retaliate after these strikes. Joining us to discuss this unfolding situation is former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein. He's now a senior fellow on U.S. diplomacy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: It's a pleasure to be with you today, Leila.

FADEL: So how do you think the Houthis will respond to what we're told were strikes on more than a dozen radar and military drone sites in Yemen?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, I think that at the very least, they're going to show that they're not deterred by the U.S. attacks and that they are going to find the earliest opportunity to renew their attacks against shipping in the Red Sea. They have the possibility of escalating. They could do additional things, including striking at targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. But it's probably unlikely that they'll do that right away. I would anticipate that they're going to go back and show that they're going to continue these operations in the Red Sea.

FADEL: So if the Houthis continue the attacks and possibly broaden them, was this the right approach by the U.S. and the U.K., or does this risk further inflaming a region already on fire?

FEIERSTEIN: I think that the problem that we have here is that the Houthis wanted the U.S. to attack, and they wanted the U.S. to attack for two reasons. One, standing up for Palestinians is broadly popular among Yemenis. And so even those Yemenis who are not supportive of the Houthis will be positively disposed towards what the Houthis are doing in relation to Gaza. And the second thing is that it raises their profile regionally. It makes them a part of the A-team, if you will, in the Iranian axis of resistance. And that's also good for them. So I think that, unfortunately, while you can understand why the president felt that he needed to act, we have, in fact, played into the Houthi game.

FADEL: So it may embolden and empower them. What's Iran's role here? I mean, Iran backs the Houthis. How much control do they actually have over what this group does?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, it's - that's been a long-standing question, really, for the last 10 years. How much does Iran direct and how much do the Houthis act on their own? I think that, you know, certainly, and we've seen what U.S. intelligence is saying, that the Iranians are providing intelligence about shipping in the Red Sea, they undoubtedly have provided the materiel, the weapons, that the Houthis have been using. But beyond that, the Houthis also are independent. And because they see benefit to their own issues and their own interests, I think that here you have a meeting of the minds between Tehran and the Houthis.

FADEL: So, in your view, the U.S. has really kind of played into what the Houthis wanted - to embolden, to empower them. It also comes on the heels of a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region in which the message was peace. We don't want a wider regional war. Is there mixed messaging here? And is that wider regional war already here?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, I think that that's the big concern, is that if this becomes more than a one-off, if the U.S. needs to go back and hit Yemen again, that it will become a larger issue than it is right now. And we know that the Biden administration has been trying to prevent that. So they do need to figure out how to wind this thing down. And I'm not sure that military strikes are the way to do that.

FADEL: That's former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein. Thank you for your time.

FEIERSTEIN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.