Houthi response to Yemen airstrikes may be ‘limited,’ says former US envoy – National

The risk of further escalation after the United States and Britain launched airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen in response to the Iran-backed rebel group’s attacks on ships in the Red Sea could be limited, said a former US diplomat.

Frank Lowenstein, who served as U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace during the second Obama administration, says Washington is likely more focused on Hezbollah’s potential threat to Israel and growing violence in the West Bank rather than how the Houthis might react. to Thursday’s strikes.

Indeed, the strikes were aimed at crippling the Houthis’ ability to launch such attacks in the future.

“I think the risk of escalation in Yemen is relatively limited – the Houthis can’t really do much more than what they’re doing now,” he told Eric Sorensen in an interview broadcast Sunday on The West Block.

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“We tried as much as possible to avoid (an offensive military response), and now I think the process is just to contain it as much as possible.”

Thursday’s strikes came days after the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries – including Canada – issued a stark warning to the Houthis to stop launching ballistic missiles and drones of combat on ships operating in the Red Sea, which is a key global trade route, or face “consequences.”

Click to play video: “Houthi militia strikes 'absolutely unacceptable': Trudeau supports US-UK strikes in Yemen”

Houthi militia strikes ‘absolutely unacceptable’: Trudeau supports US-UK strikes in Yemen

Since then, the Houthis have only intensified their attacks, culminating on Tuesday with a massive barrage of projectiles fired by British and American military personnel. This is the 27th attack of this type since the beginning of November.

The Houthis are an Iranian-backed rebel group that has attacked Western commercial and military vessels in the Red Sea in opposition to the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, itself launched in response to Hamas’ attack on Israel in october.

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Ottawa said Friday that Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed with U.S. Central Command supported Thursday’s airstrikes in Yemen, which the U.S. and British governments said targeted weapons storage sites, air defense systems and missile and drone launch facilities used by the Houthis.

A senior Pentagon official said Friday that the United States was “very confident” that the strikes were effective in degrading the Houthis’ ability to launch future attacks.

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The Houthis have vowed that strikes in Yemen “will not go unanswered and unpunished”.

Click to play video: “Red Sea: World leaders react to US-British strikes against Houthis in Yemen”

Red Sea: World leaders react to US-British strikes against Houthis in Yemen

Lowenstein says U.S. diplomatic efforts led by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have so far prevented the conflict in Gaza from spilling over into a broader regional conflict in the Middle East, including avoiding war with Hezbollah and preventing “the West Bank from completely disintegrating.” »

But these efforts have also done little to advance the ultimate goal of long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, or to address the more immediate need to address the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. .

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More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began bombing Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attacks, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

But the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations also point to the possibility of more deaths from famine and disease among the nearly two million Palestinians stuck in Gaza, without access to food, water and medical supplies. due to the Israeli blockade.

“The losses could be on a scale that would dwarf what we have seen so far in the military conflict, unless Israel significantly changes its position on allowing humanitarian aid,” he said. Lowenstein said.

He added that the humanitarian crisis threatens to expose and deepen the divide between Israel and the United States, which remains Israel’s staunchest ally but has become more vocal in its calls for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. so that it takes into account the human toll of the conflict.

Click to play video: 'Biden says he didn't ask Netanyahu for ceasefire in Gaza'

Biden says he didn’t ask Netanyahu for Gaza ceasefire

US President Joe Biden is also facing growing pressure at home as he heads into what is expected to be a tough campaign for his re-election in November.

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“I cannot emphasize enough the impossible situation that many perfectly innocent people find themselves in in Gaza,” Lowenstein said. “Since we are so invested in this war, we are by extension responsible for this disaster.

“I think we’re really going to press the Israelis on this as much as possible and hope that they really change course in a fundamental way on this front. Otherwise, you could publicly witness a major rift between the United States and Israel. »

Israel to continue its presence in Gaza for months

Despite this pressure, Lowenstein predicts that Israel will continue its military campaign in Gaza for months. The Israeli military and government have publicly declared that they will not stop until all Hamas leaders and fighters involved in the October 7 attacks are killed.

“The military campaign is far from achieving its (stated) objectives, and therefore the Israelis have no intention of backing down,” he said.

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The longer Israel remains in Gaza, the more peace in the region is threatened, he adds. The United States remains committed to ensuring the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and billions of dollars will be needed from Arab countries for the reconstruction of Gaza after the end of the military conflict.

Click to play the video: “Israel-Hamas: Blinken meets Abbas on the future of Gaza”

Israel-Hamas: Blinken meets Abbas on the future of Gaza

More importantly, while Lowenstein says a two-state solution remains the ultimate goal of the United States, Canada and much of the Western world, Netanyahu and his hardline conservative government have shown little interest in considering this idea – especially in the midst of the current conflict. .

Some of Netanyahu’s top cabinet officials, including Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, have expressed a desire for Palestinians to be relocated from Gaza to other countries, something the United States and Canada have done. sentenced.

“Their mentality (in Israel) is far from being conducive to a two-state solution, and I don’t think that will change as long as Prime Minister Netanyahu is in power,” Lowenstein said.

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However, he notes that his diplomatic career in the Middle East has taught him to “never rely on Netanyahu” – even if the Israeli leader known colloquially as Bibi might be short of support.

“I think this will all come to a head in the next few months,” he said. “Whether Bibi makes it or not is anyone’s guess.”

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