But for the rebels and many others in Yemen, the predawn strikes on Thursday were just the first public evidence of what they have long believed: that the United States has been waging an extended campaign in the country, the hidden hand behind Saudi Arabia’s punishing air war.
For the Obama administration, the missile strikes also highlighted the risks of a balancing strategy it has tried to pursue in Yemen since a bitter sectarian war engulfed the country two years ago. The United States has not formally joined the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in support of Yemen’s deposed government — and has tried to push the warring factions toward a peace deal — but it has refueled coalition bombers, trained Saudi pilots and provided intelligence to the bombing campaign.
A year and a half of bombing — along with the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians — has stoked anger in Yemen not only toward the Saudis, but also toward their perceived patrons in Washington. This week’s attacks on the Mason, an American destroyer, and the Pentagon’s response show how rapidly the United States can go from being an uneasy supporting player to an active participant in a chaotic civil war.
“The Americans have been patronizing and directing the war from the very beginning,” said Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for the rebel alliance.
Yemen’s conflict started in 2014, when Shiite rebels from the north, the Houthis, seized the capital, Sana, and sent the government into exile. They now control much of the country’s north and west, along with army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. An international military coalition led by Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in March 2015 in an effort to restore the government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled president.
The Obama administration gave its immediate support to the campaign — despite skepticism about whether the coalition would be able to dislodge the Houthis from Sana — in part because it needed Saudi support for the nuclear deal it was negotiating with the kingdom’s archenemy, Iran.
That support has come under greater scrutiny amid reports that coalition forces have been striking residential areas, markets, medical facilities and weddings. On Saturday, an attack on a funeral reception in Sana killed more than 100 people.
The United States has also kept warships in the region to guard a sea lane through which four million barrels of oil pass each day. There, in the narrow strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, the dizzying mix of warships, cargo vessels and insurgent forces this week yielded precisely what the Obama administration had spent 18 months trying to avoid.
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