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Iran-Backed Attacks On US Troops In Iraq, Syria Faded Since Massive Retaliation. Why Are The Houthis Still Attacking?

Iran-backed Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping continue in part because the Houthis are still achieving Tehran’s aims, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Iran-backed militia attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria largely died down following the sweeping Feb. 2 airstrikes against more than 85 targets across Iraq and Syria, conducted in retribution for the deaths of three U.S. Army reservists. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) forces have struck even more Houthi targets in Yemen, but the Iran-backed militants’ attacks on commercial shipping and naval vessels have not abated because the administration has so far held back striking the actual wellspring of Houthi attacks, experts told the DCNF.

“If anything, [the Iranians] have a little more control over the Houthis than I think most people infer, largely because the Houthis have absolutely zero other sources for weapons, material, training, equipment, intelligence,” Robert Greenway, director of the Allison Center for National Security at The Heritage Foundation and former National Security Council official directing Middle East policy, told the DCNF. “For that reason, it’s very difficult for them to do what they are doing without coordination and control and consent above all from the Iranians.”

Together with the United Kingdom, U.S. aircraft, warships and a submarine in the Red Sea have conducted four rounds of premeditated strikes on Houthi missile launchers, weapons storage sites, helicopters and other targets in Yemen. CENTCOM forces have also executed dozens of in-the-moment attacks on moving drone and missile targets prepared to launch from Yemen, Shapiro said.

In total, the U.S. has struck 230 targets in Yemen, Daniel Shapiro, the Pentagon’s top policy official for the Middle East, toldlawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday. That’s on top of dozens of missiles and drones intercepted while they were already streaming through the air to attack ships. But, attacks continue as the administration seeks to further avoid conflict, experts said.

The Houthis operate more independently than Iran’s other proxies, taking less direction from Iran than Hezbollah in Lebanon or the various militias in Iraq and Syria, according to The New York Times. However, Iran almost fully funds, trains and supplies the Houthis with the weapons used to terrorize Red Sea ships, the Pentagon has said. “They have the same control with both locations,” Greenway said.

Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former intelligence officer focused on the Middle East, agreed: “Iran could tell them to stop and they would stop,” he said. Instead, Iran has more leverage over the Houthis now than when attacks began in November.

“The Iranians continue to conduct attacks because it increases the leverage” over the U.S. with the threat to global shipping and the U.S.’ inability or lack of will to respond effectively, Greenway explained.

As of Feb. 27, the Houthis had carried out at least 48 attacks against commercial shipping since Nov. 19, Shapiro said.

On Thursday, Houthi military leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi claimed the Iran-backed group had attacked at least 54 ships using 384 missiles and drones in a televised address, Defense One reported. Attacks will persist “until the aggression on Gaza stops, and the siege is dismantled. Our operations are ongoing and growing in the Red Sea.”

None of the attacks have resulted in fatalities, although the Pentagon has been careful to emphasize each one endangers lives of mariners and sailors.

“We’re not seeking any type of escalation, we’re not seeking to go into a conflict with the Houthis,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a Tuesday press briefing.

“What we’ve seen these attacks do is essentially — you know, contrary to their stated aims — the Houthis are wrecking their own neighborhood with their indiscriminate attacks,” he added.

In December, gunners on a U.S. Navy helicopter killed several Houthi militants and sunk three of their boats in self-defense after rebels fired at troops coming to the aid of a commercial ship.

On Feb. 18, a Houthi missile attack critically damaged the U.K.-owned M/V Rubymar that was carrying fertilizer, forcing the crew to abandon ship, according to CENTCOM. The Rubymar continues to take on water and leak fuel into the Red Sea, creating an environmental hazard.

The Pentagon acknowledged Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea appeared to increase in frequency and severity following the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

“We’ve made it very clear to Iran that we hold it accountable for attacks by its partners and proxies and believe Iranian leaders are aware of the consequences should these attacks result in U.S. casualties,” he said.

The administration could order legitimate strikes on two Iranian spy ships operating in the Red Sea, the Behshad and the Saviz, that are providing targeting intelligence to the Houthis, Pregent said.

“That would be a direct attack on an Iranian naval vessel. That’s exactly what needs to happen in order to get the Houthis to stop,” he said.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers on the ground in Yemen could also be legitimate targets, Greenway said, as well as Tehran-based Gen. Abdul Reza Shahlai who oversees Houthi-related activities.

“Without him and the handful of guys that are down there doing training and equipping coordination, the Houthis would be a hell of a lot less effective and probably not have the capacity to threaten the United States or global shipping,” Greenway said.

Iran pressured its proxies in Iraq and Syria to cease attacks following the Feb. 2 retaliation, likely in fear of an all-out war beginning and dragging Iran into a wider conflict, the NYT reported.

President Joe Biden had vowed to respond with greater force after the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella term for a loose coalition of Iran-backed militias in the area, launched a suicide drone toward the Tower 22 outpost in Jordan on Jan. 28. The explosive-laden drone crashed and detonated near a living quarters where troops were apparently sleeping, injuring dozens and, for the first time since attacks began in October, killing three. After that, Tehran began the effort to restrain its proxies, the NYT reported, citing the officials.

“We remain at approximately 170 total attacks since Oct. 17, with the last occurring Feb. 4 in Syria,” a defense official told the DCNF on Tuesday.

Iran had let loose its proxies to protest U.S. support for Israel as it wages war against the Hamas terrorist group, but grew increasingly concerned the militias’ escalating attacks could drag Iran into outright war with the U.S., the officials reportedly said on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani heads the Quds Force, the elite branch of Iran’s paramilitary organization responsible for coordinating with Tehran’s proxy network. He has also played a role in shaping Iran’s response to Israel and the U.S. in relation to the war in Gaza.

In January, Ghaani orchestrated multiple emergency meetings with strategists and senior militia and IRGC leaders in Tehran and Baghdad to devise a plan for staving off war with the U.S., the NYT reported, citing two Iranians affiliated with the IRGC.

Then he met with representatives from the Shi’a Muslim leaders of the IRI network, warning them that the continued attacks could instigate a war between the U.S. and Iran and contravene their own ambitions to oust the U.S. from the region, according to the NYT. He made a second argument: Iran is already getting what it wants, heaping pressure on Biden and exacerbating criticism for his support for Israel. 

It took intervention from Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Al-Sudani, with whom the U.S. is negotiating plans to adjust and possibly draw down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, to convince the militias to stop their attacks, the NYT reported.

“Iran is already getting everything they want in Iraq and Syria. There’s no benefit. There is some risk associated with it,” Greenway told the DCNF.

The militants in Iraq have been asked to cease all attacks on U.S. forces, while those in Syria were convinced to lower the intensity so they don’t produce further fatalities, the NYT reported, citing the Iranian officials and American intelligence assessments.

The U.S. canceled plans to strike another senior militia leader that were part of the retaliation for the three American deaths, a DOD official told the NYT.

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