The United States launched scores of strikes across the Middle East over the weekend as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken set out for the region to push forward negotiations to secure the release of Israelis still held hostage in Gaza and get more humanitarian aid into the battered enclave.
The latest strike came Sunday in Yemen, where the U.S. military said it had destroyed an anti-ship cruise missile that belonged to Houthi militants and posed “an imminent threat to U.S. Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region.”
It was the third American military action against Iranian-backed militias in as many days: The United States led strikes on Saturday against 36 Houthi targets in northern Yemen, and on Friday carried out airstrikes on more than 85 targets in Syria and Iraq.
American officials insist that the strikes have been carefully calibrated to avoid setting off an open confrontation with Iran and say that they have degraded the ability of the militias to attack U.S. forces.
Yet the militias all remain formidable Iranian proxies, especially the heavily armed Houthis in Yemen, and the strikes against them risked the kind of escalation of hostilities that President Biden has sought to avoid since the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began in October.
In a four-day trip, Mr. Blinken is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank. His goal is in part to “continue work to prevent the spread of the conflict,” said Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman.
The secretary of state, Mr. Miller said, will also “continue discussions with partners on how to establish a more integrated, peaceful region that includes lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
The most immediate goal, though, is securing an agreement that would include the release of the more than 100 remaining people kidnapped during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel and a humanitarian pause in the conflict to allow for the delivery of aid to civilians in Gaza.
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said on Sunday that making sure more aid reaches civilians in Gaza would be a “top priority” for Mr. Blinken on his trip, including in meetings with the Israeli government. “We want to ensure that they are getting access to lifesaving food, medicine, water, shelter, and we’ll continue to press until that is done,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The trip is Mr. Blinken’s fifth to the region since the war began. His French counterpart, Stéphane Séjourné, was also embarking on a tour of the Middle East, making his first stop on Sunday in Egypt.
Friday’s strikes were largely in retaliation for a drone attack by an Iranian-backed militia that killed three American soldiers in Jordan on Jan. 28. American officials insisted in the aftermath that there had been no back-channel discussion with Tehran or any sort of quiet agreement to avoid directly hitting Iran. And on Sunday they warned of more to come.
“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Mr. Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Mr. Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future action. But he said that the goal was to punish those targeting Americans without setting off a direct confrontation with Iran.
On Sunday, a spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Kanaani, condemned the American-led strikes in Yemen, saying in a statement that they were “stoking chaos, disorder, insecurity and instability” in the region.
The expectation is that the strikes will prompt Iran to back off, fearful of risking a shooting war with a far larger power. But what its proxies — which all depend on Tehran for money, arms and intelligence — may do is far harder to predict.
That is especially true of the Houthis, who control parts of Yemen and have been maintaining their attacks on ships in the Red Sea since late last year, despite American and British strikes.
Neither American nor Arab officials believe that the capabilities of the Houthis have been significantly degraded by the campaign, and the militants have vowed to keep targeting ships in the Red Sea, linking their fight to the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel in Gaza. Their attacks have roiled the commercial shipping industry, forcing many vessels to take long detours around the southern tip of Africa.
Taking on the Houthis is “like fighting fog,” said Yoel Guzansky, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Even a determined effort to root out their stockpiles would take years, he cautioned. “They have lots of light weaponry that’s easy to hide and difficult to find,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger and Farnaz Fassihi.