Does a missile strike in Yemen put the US on a slippery slope?

The civil war in Yemen is getting dirtier. And on Thursday, the US launched its first strike on targets there.

Osamah Abdulrhman/AP
People inspect the aftermath of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.

The US military launched cruise missiles at three radar installations in rebel-held Yemen on Thursday. The attacks were described by US officials as “limited self-defense strikes,” launched after missiles were fired at US warships patrolling off the coast on two separate days this week. 

"These radars were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea," an official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US blames the Houthi rebels, an Iran-backed Shiite group, for the attempts. The Houthis have been fighting a Saudi Arabia-led coalition since seizing large swaths of territory in 2015. Last weekend, Saudi airstrikes targeted a funeral for three missile strikes over the weekend, killing at least 140 civilians – an event that Adam Baron, a Yemen specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), described as a “dramatic escalation” in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson:

Inside Yemen, the shock of the strike in Sanaa, which killed some 140 mourners at the well publicized gathering – among them prominent figures who could have been instrumental in securing peace – has galvanized a desire for revenge, analysts say, that is likely to snuff out near-term peacemaking efforts while it further escalates fighting.

In a war now defined by civilian casualties at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition rather than any military achievement, the scale of the fallout is raising the question of whether Saudi Arabia can be pressured to change its war plan to roll back Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels and restore a Saudi-backed government.

The funeral attack spurred the US military to review its military assistance to the coalition. But despite officials’ suggestion that US military involvement is tightly circumscribed, the attacks on Thursday would seem to raise questions about whether the United States may be further drawn into a bloody proxy war that has killed over 10,000 people since March 2015 – including at least 4,000 civilians, according to the UN.

US troops are already on the ground in Yemen: In May, the Pentagon acknowledged that a “very small group” of troops were lending support to United Arab Emirate forces who are trying to push Al-Qaeda from the port city of Mukalla, according to the Military Times.

"I don't think they would say they're involved in a civil war, but clearly they're being dragged in,” NPR’s Tom Bowman said in an interview with his station. 

"I think the U.S. would like to see some sort of a resolution here, but of course, once you start striking rebel areas, it makes it hard for you to be an honest broker here,” he added. “But there's a growing concern, though, over the increasing civilian toll here – and there's a lot of concern in Congress about that in particular."

The official quoted by Reuters added that the radar targets were located in remote areas north of Mocha, where the risk of civilian casualties was low. Sources in the shipping industry told the news agency that Dhubab district, to the south, was also hit.

In early September, the Monitor’s Scott Peterson noted that members of Congress had drawn up legislation to block the sale of $1.15 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, citing the high rate of civilian casualties in its airstrikes in Yemen.

“In a letter this week to President Barack Obama,” the Monitor wrote then, “some US lawmakers said that the strikes on civilian targets by Saudi Arabia – which has received extensive US military assistance in its Yemen campaign, from intelligence and targeting data to mid-air refueling of jet fighters – ‘may amount to war crimes.’”

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