"We Have To Strike Back At The Houthis"

Our last edition of 2023 asks: who's ready to Americanize the war in Yemen? PLUS: A Palestinian case before the European Court of Human Rights. 

"We Have To Strike Back At The Houthis"
Photo illustration by Sam Thielman

Our last edition of 2023 asks: who's ready to Americanize the war in Yemen? PLUS: A Palestinian case before the European Court of Human Rights. 

Edited by Sam Thielman 

THE LATEST POTENTIAL ESCALATION of the Israeli assault on Gaza centers on the Red Sea. While before Oct. 7 it looked like there might be a way out of the eight-year Yemen War, now there's a real risk that the Yemen and Gaza wars will converge. 

In Bahrain on Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a name I feel oddly bound to respect for announcing itself straightforwardly as a military operation for commercial purposes. Ensuring "freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity" is the vague objective Austin articulated. 

All this comes in response to the decision by Yemen's ruling Houthis to hold commercial shipping at risk in the economically vital Red Sea using Iranian-provided missiles and drones. The point of the operation to impose international costs on Israel for its collective punishment of Gaza. Major shipping companies are avoiding the Red Sea so as not to come under attack, so shipping costs on all manner of commercial imports are going to rise, and with them prices. 

While Austin had little to say about what Prosperity Guardian will do—maritime escorts in the Red Sea? Something more airstrike-and-Tomahawk-y?—he announced a formidable naval coalition doing it. Warships and support will come from the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, Bahrain, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Italy and even the Seychelles. (Not sure how significant this is yet, but it's conspicuous to me that Saudi Arabia, which led the devastation of Yemen, isn't part of it, despite having a Red Sea coast and an unambiguous interest in the security of the waterway. Perhaps the Saudis don't want to break the informal ceasefire with the Houthis.) The Houthis on Tuesday responded that any country participating in the operation will make its commercial vessels a target

While I couldn't tell you what the limits of Operation Prosperity Guardian are, it's already been greeted with lamentations over its insufficiency. "[W]e have to strike back at the Houthis and get this behavior back in control," retired Gen. Joe Votel, a significant military figure in the War on Terror as Joint Special Operations Command and then U.S. Central Command commander, told the Washington Examiner. I see from the Examiner's newsletter that the Senate Armed Services Committee's senior Republican, Mississippi's Roger Wicker, "call[s] on the Biden administration to give our regional commanders the freedom of action they require to ensure that continued Houthi aggression stops once and for all," whatever "once and for all" means. Retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold, who was the commander of the USS Cole when al-Qaeda bombed it in 2000, told CNN on Tuesday that the U.S. can't merely respond to Houthi attacks. "If it means we need to take down the missile shooting sites, drone locations and their ability to command and control getting them out there to shoot at these vessels," he said, "we are going to have to consider that and put the pieces in place to execute that kind of operation."

So, something like 75 days after Oct. 7, there's now an elite constituency for yet another war in Yemen, and this one aimed at the regime in its capital of Sanaa. To recap, the U.S. has throughout the War on Terror conducted drone strikes in Yemen, but not against the Houthis. And while the U.S. has often been intimately involved in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, providing arms and at times intelligence to what before Gaza was the region's most pitiless war, the U.S. didn't take direct military action itself. (Although.) But now the ripple effects from Gaza may change that. The former NATO and U.S. Southern Command commander Adm. James Stavridis looked past the Houthis entirely, tweeting, "If Iran doesn't back off, we're going to have to do more than just be defensive, frankly." 

Now, an alternative to this particular escalatory path that achieves its objectives of securing freedom of navigation in the Red Sea would be for the U.S. to—checks notes—use its overwhelming influence on Israel to stop its assault on Gaza and the West Bank. That would also carry the twin benefits of facilitating hostage releases, which the war is imperiling in the most agonizing of ways, and saving the lives of thousands of Palestinians trapped in Gaza, more than 19,000 of whom have been killed and 52,000 injured since Oct. 7. No destruction of Gaza, no Yemeni threats to shipping, and no risk of further war in Yemen that could draw the U.S. into yet another unwinnable proxy war guaranteed to ravage an already-beleaguered civilian population. 

But that isn't the path the Biden administration intends to travel. So we're looking instead at a new front to the war in the waters near Yemen, and perhaps in Yemen itself. Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told Israel's N12 on Friday that countries with established relationships to Iran ought to pressure Tehran to call off the Houthis. (I took him to mean China.) But Sullivan called the Houthi attacks a "threat… to the entire international community," and now the Pentagon is arraying a coalition to respond militarily, all without an articulated end-state.

The rhetoric here raises questions about whether an end to the Red Sea attacks will be sufficient for the U.S.-led coalition—or whether its objectives will only be satisfied by an end to the Houthis. In which case, the experience of the War on Terror compels me to ask: and then what? 

AS I'M WRITING THIS, the U.S. is trying to avoid a third veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The cost of U.S. non-opposition is watering down its language into meaninglessness. Once a call for a ceasefire, now there's a move to make it an entreaty for "urgent steps towards a suspension of hostilities." As of this writing, the vote has been punted to Wednesday, as diplomatic wrangling continues.  

Meanwhile, despite calls since Friday by Sullivan and Austin for Israel to transition away from "high-intensity" operations in Gaza in the coming weeks, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops in southern Israel that the invasion will "expand to additional areas." In Haaretz, the military correspondent Amos Harel noted on Monday, "there are no signs that the government or the army is seriously readying for a next stage within the next few weeks. To date, there have only been symbolic gestures in that direction. The military rabbinate has been preparing for the possibility that many troops will be celebrating the Passover holiday in Gaza."

THE HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER HELEN DUFFY is bringing a suit before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a Palestinian man, Ismail Ziada, who seeks redress from two Israeli military officers for killing his mother, three brothers, his nephew and his sister-in-law, and destroying his house in Gaza. This isn't about a bombing that happened this year. It's about a bombing that happened in 2014.  

"The Dutch Supreme Court dismissed the claim in August 2023 on grounds that under international law the officials enjoyed absolute immunity from civil suit, after Israel filed a diplomatic note urging Dutch courts to reject the claim; the case had previously been rejected by the District Court of The Hague and the Court of Appeal," according to a release about a briefing on Ziada's lawsuit that I unfortunately couldn't attend. 

"There is a terrible circularity here," Duffy tells FOREVER WARS. "The background facts to this case are chillingly familiar in light of what we see unfolding in Gaza today—targeting civilians, and cycles of impunity and denial of justice. We know that failing to address the past contributes to repetition in the future, but we act on that learning very selectively." 

The implications of the case stretch beyond Palestine. "If we expect international law to be taken seriously, we need to break cycles of violations and impunity and recognise the importance of the rights of victims like the Ziada family and other Palestinians, who have for decades and in many different ways been denied justice for the violations of their rights," Duffy continues. Unfortunately, that's a big If

MY MAYOR, EX-COP AND POSSIBLY FUTURE CONVICT ERIC ADAMS, is understandably distracted by the federal foreign-influence probe into his campaign. But this is a way of talking about 9/11 whose insanity compounds the more you fold it around in your head like croissant dough. 

“This is a place where every day you wake up you could experience everything from a plane crashing into our Trade Center through a person who's celebrating a new business that's about to open,” Adams said. “This is a very, very complicated city, and that's why it's the greatest city on the globe.”

What, you can't hear Alicia Keys singing that? Eric, before you go to prison, how about releasing the secret files about what the city knew about the environmental toxicity of Ground Zero while Rudy Giuliani and Christine Todd Whitman were saying the foulest air you've ever encountered was safe to breathe?

AND THAT'S IT FROM FOREVER WARS IN 2023. Sam's about to leave town. My oldest will be out of school in a couple days. My mother-in-law will arrive even sooner. We published 87 editions this year. It's time for FOREVER WARS to shut down until January. 

I feel like I'm jinxing myself by writing that. Any number of awful things could happen before January, particularly those emanating from the Israeli assault on Gaza, that could compel a FOREVER WARS impromptu edition. But the best thing for all of us is if I can stay away from the phone and the keyboard. 

This isn't going to be a pure period of rest and relaxation for me. Next week I leave for the longest reporting trip I've taken since COVID. That's related to an extremely exciting project that I'll be announcing in January. It's one that made an old friend, one of the War on Terror reporters I most look up to, gasp over the phone when I told her about it. Pursuing a project this ambitious means I owe it my exclusive focus for the rest of 2023. Scrambling to produce newsletter editions on this trip would just result in bad newsletters and distracted reporting. 

But know that my heart will be with you, FOREVER WARS readers. I'm extremely grateful for you. A lot of you came on board with us after Oct. 7, especially after my Ezra Klein Show appearance, and then more came along after my Henry Kissinger obituary. Thank you. What I would also love? If more of you bought subscriptions. I don't want to have to paywall more editions. But frankly, even with our influx of new readers, we have to get these numbers up. If you value this kind of journalism, I ask that you pay for it. 

I know, I brought money into it. It's gross, even if it's real. But so is my continued gratitude for your patronage. That's what allows the reporting, perspective, voice and analysis we present at FOREVER WARS to continue into 2024. 

Finally, the novelist and comics writer Alex Segura has a review of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM that's so generous I keep closing the tab—he's making comparisons to Chris Claremont and Watchmen! Phrases like "a superhero book unlike any other" appear. Thanks very much to Alex, a new friend who was kind enough to hang at New York Comic Con, and make sure you read his crime novel Secret Identity. And if you'd like to check out this smash critical sensation that has so bowled over professional writers like Alex, you can preorder the hardcover edition of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, due in January, or go to Bulletproof Comics, which right now is selling all four issues in a set, signed by me

And with that, we wish you a peaceful holiday season and a prosperous new year.