Biden administration defends handling of Houthi Red Sea attacks

After Republican criticism, US official tells The National new coalition efforts against Yemeni rebels 'speak for themselves'

The USS Laboon operating in the Red Sea late last year. AFP
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The administration of US President Joe Biden is denying Republican claims that it is not doing enough to counter Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, as the Iran-backed Yemeni rebels continue to use rockets and drones in the vital waterway.

The US last month launched a new international mission focused on countering attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea but there has been no let-up in Houthi aggression.

House foreign affairs committee chairman Michael McCaul said the US should take "real action" to protect American sailors and interests in the Middle East.

"Weakness invites aggression," Mr McCaul said in a statement.

"The Houthis are not backing down in response to multiple strongly worded statements by the Biden administration and others."

A US State Department official said Washington’s “bolstered presence in the region and that of our allies and partners is significant.”

“It should serve as a clear message of our commitment to ensure the safety and security of commercial shipping vessels operating there,” the official told The National.

Pentagon press secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder also defied criticism of US leadership in the Red Sea.

"The US is not being too weak," he told reporters on Tuesday. "We are working very actively with international partners to address the Houthi threat"

He repeated an international statement last week that warned of "consequences" for continued Houthi attacks.

That message should be "taken very seriously," Maj Gen Ryder said.

Mr McCaul also said the decision in 2021 to remove Houthis from the Foreign Terrorist Organisation list was “clearly a mistake and they must relist the Houthis now”.

The State Department official on Monday defended that decision, saying it “was due to the humanitarian consequences of that designation on the Yemeni people".

But the official added: “In light of the Houthis’ blatantly aggressive behaviour, we are considering options to take meaningful action against the group while mitigating any humanitarian repercussions."

Even leading Democrats in the Senate seem to be rethinking their position on the terrorist organisation designation.

Last month, as attacks on vessels in the Red Sea increased, Senate foreign relations committee chairman Ben Cardin said “it may be time” to consider reclassifying the Houthis.

In response to Mr McCaul's wider criticism, the State Department official highlighted a sweeping joint statement last week from the US, UK, Bahrain and others that threatened the Houthis with “consequences” if disruption in the Red Sea continued.

“Our statement speaks for itself,” the official added.

The official added that the US-led mission “continues to work with participating countries to utilise increased defensive patrols in the Red Sea to offer reassurance to the shipping industry and protect maritime traffic”.

Washington's anti-Houthi actions have included shooting down drones and missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

Last week, the Houthis launched an unmanned boat packed with explosives from Yemen towards international shipping lanes in the Red Sea. It exploded before hitting anything.

The official also highlighted Washington's crackdown on the Houthis in other arenas, including sanctions against 40 people, groups and vessels in connection with the Iranian-backed group.

“We will continue to take action as needed,” the US official said.

Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

Updated: January 09, 2024, 11:07 PM