The Houthis may have “bitten off more than they can chew” in their attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said on Thursday, a day after the leader of Yemen's militant group threatened to strike US warships.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin this week announced the formation of a new international maritime task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian that is focused on countering attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
More than a dozen countries are participating in the coalition.
On Wednesday, Houthi leader Abdelmalek Al Houthi warned that the group would strike US warships if the militia was attacked by Washington.
“Any American targeting of our country will be targeted by us, and we will make American battleships, interests and navigation a target for our missiles, drones and military operations,” Mr Al Houthi said.
Pentagon Press Secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said the coalition is defensive in nature and focused on ensuring the safety of shipping.
“The Houthis need to stop these attacks, they need to stop them now – that's clear and simple,” he told reporters.
“And they really need to ask themselves if they've bitten off more than they can chew when it comes to taking on the entire international community and negatively impacting billions and billions of dollars in global trade, economic prosperity and international law.”
Maj Gen Ryder said the Houthis have not conducted any new attacks since the task force was set up on Monday and that he hoped it was having a deterrent effect.
Since last month, the Houthis have launched drones and fired missiles at international vessels sailing through the Red Sea, attacks it says are in response to Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip.
Hans Jacob-Schindler, director of the Counter Extremism Project, said it was unlikely the attacks would stop anytime soon.
“They do not care who owns the ships, they just need to keep the attacks going to cause diversion to disrupt transport routes to Israel,” he told The National.
“Should this continue the way it is, it has the potential to escalate and lead to US air strikes.”
Mr Jacob-Schindler predicted that the task force would ultimately end up striking Houthi weapons caches in Yemen. Military officials have also suggested attacking Houthi missile launchers.
“I do not really see a good solution, but what's more likely to happen is someone will intervene so that the Houthis do not have the capability to get weapons for military strikes -it is the only way,” he said.
The Houthi attacks have disrupted a key trade route that links Europe and North America with Asia via the Suez Canal and caused container shipping costs to rise sharply as companies seek to ship their goods via alternative, often longer, routes.
Container shipping companies in particular have continued to pause their voyages through the Red Sea, using instead a route around Africa that adds days to journey times and raises costs.
That in turn has stoked worries about delays to deliveries and price rises that could trigger a new bout of global inflation.
“We will continue to reroute all vessels planned until December 31. Then we will reassess the situation and decide,” a representative for German shipping company Hapag Lloyd said.