Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 599, 18 January 2024

The Red Sea Crisis: Attacks and Counter Attacks
Nuha Aamina

In the news
On 12 January, in response to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea since November, the US and the UK launched missile strikes in Yemen. The US Lieutenant General Douglas Sims stated that over 150 munitions were used to strike 28 locations in Yemen. The development comes after the Houthis fired their 27th attack, an anti-ship ballistic missile, in the Gulf of Aden on 11 January.
 
On the same day, referring to the attacks, US President Joe Biden stated: “These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation.”
 
The same day, Houthis’ Supreme Political Council threatened that “all American-British interests have become legitimate targets for the Yemeni armed forces in response to their direct and declared aggression against the Republic of Yemen.” A member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, stated that his group neither attacked "the shores of America'' nor did they "move in the American islands'' and that "your strikes on our country are terrorism." 
 
In response, Russia called for a meeting at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to discuss the issue. Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdogan, called the attacks a "disproportionate use of force," adding that this would "turn the Red Sea into a sea of blood" and the Houthis would respond to the US and UK "by using all of its force."  Foreign Minister of Denmark, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, stated that the country fully supports the strikes against Yemen's Houthis. 
 
Within the US, the progressive Democrats argued that Article 1 of the US Constitution mandates congressional authorisation for war, emphasising the "checks and balances" in the system. Biden's supporters argue that the defensive use of military force includes responding to attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria and commercial ships in the Red Sea.
 
On 14 January, the US military reported that its fighter aircraft intercepted and destroyed an anti-ship cruise missile launched from Houthi-controlled regions in Yemen toward a US destroyer in the Southern Red Sea. The Houthis accused that the aircraft was flying close to Yemen's airspace and coast.
 
On 15 January, the UK Minister of Defence, Grant Shapps, stated that the government was planning to increase the defence spending to 2.5 per cent of the GDP.  
 
On 16 January, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the country stayed out of the US-UK mission "because we (France) have a position that seeks to avoid any escalation."
 
On 17 January, the US relisted Houthis under the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). The move aims at cutting off finances and weapon supplies used by Houthis to hijack and attack ships on the Red Sea.

Issues at large
First, the strategic significance of the Red Sea. The Red Sea hosts nearly 12 per cent of the world’s trade. The Bab el Mandeb Strait, the southern entrance to the sea, has strategic and economic importance as it is the shortest link between Europe and Asia. Since the Red Sea crisis began, global trade has fallen 1.3 per cent. Companies, including Maersk and DHL, send their ships on longer routes around the Cape of Good Hope. Since the 12 January attack, fifteen oil tankers have altered their course. Oil prices are rising; CNN reported on 12 January that the prices of Brent and US crude have increased by three per cent. War risk insurance premiums are expected to rise, especially those shipments linked to the US and the UK. According to the Dutch bank ING estimate, due to the diversion of 90 per cent of shipments in the first week of January, container rates on the Shanghai-Rotterdam route have soared from USD 1,170 in early December to USD 4,400 USD on 11 January. While trade volumes from China to Britain have significantly fallen from 2022 to 2023, more than EUR 50 billion worth of goods arrived in the UK, exceeding pre-Covid levels.
 
Second, the divided Europe. Italy, Spain and France are not taking part in the US and British offensive and not signing the joint statement by ten countries justifying the attacks. The Italian government cited two reasons - the requirement of a parliamentary authorisation and its preference to execute a "calming" policy in the Red Sea. However, the government later stated that Italy supported the "allied" countries' actions and their "right to defend their vessels in the interest of global trade flows and humanitarian assistance." For France, the concern was that the US-led strikes would diminish France's leverage in defusing tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. While Denmark and Germany were the main exceptions that backed the attack, Spanish Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, stated that Spain would not carry out a military intervention as the country is “committed to peace and dialogue.”
 
Third, the escalation of tensions in the region. The Israel-Gaza conflict has led to a major regional overspill. What started as a display of solidarity by the Houthis has evolved into the direct involvement of several actors including the Houthis, the US and the US. The conflict has expanded in terms of geography and actors. The US and the UK believe that their offensive will subdue the Houthi attacks in the region. However, along with ships heading to Israel or Israeli-origin vessels, the UK and the US ships have now become new “legitimate targets." While Iran continues to stay out from direct involvement in the war in Gaza, its proxies including the Yemeni Houthis, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various groups in Syria and Iraq have been carrying out attacks on Israel conveying solidarity with the Palestinians.

In perspective
While the war in Gaza is escalating with the entry of new actors and geographies, the outcomes are causing a global impact. However, the irony is that although the US and the Houthis urge for a ceasefire in Gaza, their actions do not align with their shared goal. Additionally, with Houthis announcing to continue its attacks, it is uncertain whether the US-UK joint offensive will stop the Houthi attacks or resolve the problem of freedom of navigation. A confrontation would likely worsen the tensions and attract the entry of new actors. Iran would likely continue to support its proxies unless it is attacked directly. As long as the Israel-Gaza war continues, the root cause of other regional conflicts will start to crystallize, evolving into an uncertain future.

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