For months, top United States officials have repeatedly said that President Joe Biden does not want to see Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip escalate into a wider conflict in the Middle East.
That was the central message US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed this week as he made his fourth visit to the region since the war began. His trip came in the shadow of Israeli attacks in Lebanon and attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on vessels in the Red Sea.
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“The Red Sea — we want to avoid escalation there,” Blinken said in Cairo on Thursday, when asked about his efforts to prevent the conflict from spiralling.
But only hours later, the US confirmed it had collaborated with the United Kingdom to launch “strikes against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels”, in coordination with a handful of other countries.
Experts and rights advocates warn that the attacks clash with the Biden administration’s stated goals of de-escalation and fail to address the root cause of the soaring tensions in the region: Israel’s military assault on Gaza.
“It does run contrary to what the administration has been saying, but it was also inevitable,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker advocacy group in Washington, DC.
“Everybody watching this situation knew that it was a matter of time before the war in Gaza spilled out across the region. And we’re seeing that not only in the Red Sea, but we’re also seeing it in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Without that ceasefire in Gaza, it’s hard to see how this gets better. And I think the simmering pot is now boiling over, and it’s just going to get worse and worse as time goes on. It’s really a very dangerous moment.”
Red Sea attacks
On Friday, a senior US official told the Reuters news agency that more than 150 munitions had been used to hit nearly 30 locations linked to the Houthi armed group in Yemen.
The Iran-aligned Houthis control large swaths of Yemen including the western coast overlooking the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which leads to the Red Sea. The group began firing missiles at Israel and attacking commercial ships shortly after the war on Gaza began in October.
The group has said it is targeting Israel-linked vessels as part of an effort to pressure the Israeli government to end its Gaza bombardment and allow more humanitarian aid deliveries into the coastal Palestinian enclave.
The attacks in the Red Sea — a key commercial thoroughfare through which about 12 percent of global trade transits — led shipping companies to suspend operations in the area and drew condemnation from the US and its allies.
In mid-December, Washington launched a multinational force aimed at defending “freedom of navigation” in the Red Sea, and at the end of the month, US forces sank three Houthi boats, killing 10 fighters.
During a news conference from Egypt’s capital on Thursday, Blinken condemned the Houthis and noted that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution a day earlier urging the group to end its attacks.
“We have a number of countries that have made clear that, if it doesn’t stop, there’ll have to be consequences, and unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped. But we want to make sure that it does, and we’re prepared to do that,” the top US diplomat said.
Brian Finucane, a senior US programme adviser at the International Crisis Group think tank, said it was widely expected that the US would launch attacks against the Houthis in Yemen amid the escalating Red Sea confrontations.
But Finucane — who previously worked at the US State Department, advising on the use of military force — told Al Jazeera that the Yemen strikes show that the Biden administration “has adopted a posture of self-deception and a self-defeating policy”.
“On the one hand, they repeat in this mantra-like fashion their desire to avoid a wider regional war. On the other hand, we already have that wider regional war and the underlying cause … is the conflict in Gaza, which the US is fuelling through unconditional military support [for Israel],” he said.
‘Arsonist and firefighter’
Biden, who confirmed the strikes on Thursday, said his administration was sending “a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes”.
“I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary,” the US president said in a statement, which did not mention the Israeli war in Gaza.
Earlier this month, a senior administration official also rejected the Houthis’ claim that their attacks in the Red Sea are tied to Gaza, calling that rationale “illegitimate”.
The war in Gaza has killed more than 23,700 Palestinians since October 7, prompting widespread international outcry and raising questions about the risk of genocide.
According to Finucane, the US’s failure to “acknowledge reality” — that the Gaza war lies at the heart of current regional tensions — “will make it very difficult to craft effective policy”.
And while the US said its overnight Yemen strikes were “intended to disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ capabilities”, Finucane questioned whether they would really stem the Red Sea attacks.
The Houthis in Yemen have already withstood years of bombings in a war led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The group is currently in talks with Riyadh over a lasting ceasefire.
“I think it’s really important to recognise that the US is simultaneously playing the role of arsonist and firefighter in the Middle East,” Finucane said.
“It is pouring fuel on the fire in Gaza, while at the same time trying to tamp down the flare-ups elsewhere in the region — flare-ups that endanger US service members.”
Gaza ceasefire key
Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni American assistant professor at Michigan State University, said she was disheartened but not surprised to see the Biden administration launch attacks on Yemen.
“It’s not surprising because we’ve seen evidence over and over again [that] US policy in the Middle East, and Yemen more specifically, has been one that is reactive, one that leads with violence,” she told Al Jazeera. “Air strikes seem to be the go-to for whichever administration has been in power [over] the past couple of decades.”
She added that, if the Biden administration really wanted to de-escalate regional tensions, it would be pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza. “Their words don’t align with their actions.”
The Biden administration has provided Israel with military and diplomatic support since the Gaza war began, without drawing “red lines” for how those resources can be used. It has also blocked UN resolutions urging a ceasefire and rejected a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank in Washington, DC, also told Al Jazeera in a television interview on Thursday that the Yemen attacks highlight a failure on the part of the US and UK to push Israel to end its war in Gaza.
“The question that has to be asked is, ‘Why is it that the British and American governments prefer to escalate and go to war essentially in order to prevent the Houthis from attacking ships, rather than actually [taking] the path of a ceasefire in Gaza?'” he said.
A ceasefire, Parsi explained, would end the killings of Palestinians, help secure the release of Israeli captives held in Gaza, and stem attacks on US and allied forces in Iraq and Syria, which have also escalated since early October.
“The strategy of the Biden administration has been to try to achieve de-escalation by escalating,” he said. “And it doesn’t seem to work in the long run, clearly, because the Houthis are likely not going to back off.”
That was echoed by El-Tayyab, who told Al Jazeera that “more war has not, and has never been, the answer”.
“They should try to end the war in Gaza for its own sake because there’s a massive humanitarian crisis,” he said, noting the mass displacement of Palestinians and warnings of famine in Gaza.
“But a ceasefire in Gaza would also have a knock-on effect of really ratcheting down escalation and violence in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, in Lebanon, [to] secure all peoples in the region — Arabs and Israelis — and secure American interests abroad.”
El-Tayyab added, “Really, the only way out of this mess is diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy.”