Yemen’s Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, explained

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Yemen-based Houthi rebels launched another attack on commercial ships transiting the Red Sea on Thursday, sending an unmanned explosive ship near a US Navy ship, a day after warnings of a US-led coalition, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, aimed at protecting the area.

The attacks, which have continued for weeks, threaten to significantly disrupt the flow of commercial goods through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a major route for trade between Asia and Western countries. It is an approach that, at relatively little cost to the Houthis and their Iranian backers, has exposed the ineffectiveness of the US coalition response and increased tension in the region, which has been escalating on multiple fronts after Hamas‘ attacks on Israel on October 7.

In a statement on Wednesday, the United States and its 12 coalition partners issued a final warning to the Houthis that they would “take responsibility for the consequences” if attacks on container ships transiting the sea route continued. In response to that vague warning, the group detonated an explosive unmanned surface vessel (USV) in the vicinity of several commercial vessels, as well as a US Navy ship, although none of the vessels were damaged. And on Saturday, a US warship shot down a drone launched from Houthi-controlled territory “in international waters of the southern Red Sea, in close proximity to multiple commercial vessels.” according to a statement from US Central Command..

Given that the Houthis are committed to antagonizing commercial ships, the question of a possible response remains, and the coalition does not have many clear options that could effectively stop the attacks without risking open conflict with Iran. Meanwhile, with Iranian support, the Houthis have proven their approach is effective, even against the world’s leading naval power.

The Houthis hit the West where it hurts most

The Houthis have He said they are targeting vessels that are somehow associated with Israel in response to that country’s attacks against Loop and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Israel’s attacks have killed nearly 23,000 Palestinians and are leaving the region “uninhabitable” according to UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths.

The Houthis have carried out around twenty attacks against commercial ships in the area since November 18, NAVCENT Commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday, including launching ballistic missiles, drones and now a U.S. vehicle. The United States announced Operation Prosperity Guardian on Dec. 18naming Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Seychelles, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Norway as partners in the effort.

As Craig Fuller, CEO of FreightWaves, he told Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast this week, “The United States has the largest navy in the world, and it is also one of the only blue water navies; it can go anywhere, defend anywhere on the planet,” and “the sole purpose of this is to protect the routes load”. . “One of the primary callings of the U.S. Navy is its role in protecting commerce and ensuring global commerce.”

Cooper told reporters that “some 1,500 merchant vessels have safely transited the waters of the Red Sea since the operation began.” But how Bloomberg It was reported in late December, shortly after the coalition was announced, that shipping traffic decreased by 40 percent in the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. Both that waterway and the Suez Canal are fundamental for international trade: not only the oil and energy products that come from the Middle East, but also the container ships that transport consumer goods, as well as the machinery and parts necessary for the manufacturing, affecting global supply chains. several different levels.

And even if some cargo ships transit safely, the increased insurance costs or risks could be too much for some companies. Furthermore, despite American warnings, the attacks have not stopped. “It’s very clear from the way the conflict has unfolded and the way Houthi attacks have escalated, even as the United States has tried to respond, that what the United States is doing is actually not having any deterrent effect.” of any kind”. Jennifer Kavanagha senior fellow at the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Vox.

The attacks are pushing shipping companies to change their transit routes, with industry leader Maersk saying it will withdraw its vessels from the Red Sea route in favor of a longer route around the Cape of Good Hope “in the foreseeable future” after Houthi militants attacked one. of the ships from him on January 1st. Maersk controls around a sixth of global container shipping, according to Reutersand the alternative route adds up to three weeks to shipping times.

Not only do products take longer to reach their destinations, but the extra time also generates additional costs for shipping companies (for fuel, wages and insurance, for example), as shipping company Hapag-Lloyd said. Friday. Companies then pass those increases on to consumers.

“I think the clear lesson from what has happened in the Red Sea is that it doesn’t take much to disrupt shipping,” Kavanagh said. “And it is very difficult for the United States to respond to these types of gray zone attacks,” or attacks by non-state actors like the Houthis, “on commercial ships in a measured way, while balancing the risks of escalation.”

The United States has few good options

The United States told the Houthis on Wednesday that they should not expect another warning if they continue their attacks in the region; Now that that warning has been ignored, the coalition’s response plan has to deter attacks without escalating the overall regional conflict. But it is not clear that the coalition can really accomplish that task.

He The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the United States is exploring options to attack Houthi targets, which could include missile and drone launchers, radar locations on the Yemeni coast, and Houthi munitions facilities.

There are many complications in using force against the Houthis, one of which is that many of their weapons systems are mobile. But, as Kavanagh said, the United States can only go so far in its retaliation. “They can shoot down drones and missiles, which is inefficient and very costly” for the United States. “They can step forward and attack targets, inside Yemen, the staging areas where some of these speedboats are located, where the unmanned maritime vessels depart from or, as they have already done, try to attack munitions or munitions. deposits. But beyond that, what is the next step that should be taken that does not lead to direct attacks on Iran?

Meanwhile, the Houthis can continue to frustrate the global shipping industry “mainly by increasing [the] volume of attacks,” Daniel Byman, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox.

Most importantly, the Houthi attacks have not targeted oil tankers or other energy shipments, as Fuller noted, preserving one of the region’s most important commodities so as not to inflame regional players such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who hope to stop a broader regional escalation.

“Most countries in the region have chosen not to participate [of the US-led coalition], because they are worried about Iran and… they don’t want to be seen as protectors of Israel, because the Houthis have said that Israel is their target.” Kavanagh said. “So there has been a very large coalition response [that] has been very ineffective at the same time; The objectives of that coalition have not been very clear either. That is why they have very little participation, very limited capacities and without clear objectives.”

Even if the coalition is somehow able to decrease the number of Houthi attacks while avoiding direct conflict with Iran, other regional fronts continue to escalate; In Lebanon, for example, A senior Hamas leader was assassinated on Tuesday, apparently by Israel.. The war has also led to new attacks on US posts in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed groups, and the Iraqi government is preparing to withdraw US coalition forces from the country.

“People think that escalation in the region is like a switch has been flipped, and I think it’s important to recognize that the alternative is also possible,” Kavanagh said. “Actually you already see this happening, which is a kind of constant increase in violence, and the tit-for-tat strikes gradually increase and all of a sudden you’re in [an] intolerable level.”

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