Yemen’s Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, explained

The Yemen-based, Iran-backed group hasn’t been fazed by a US-led response.

The largest source of foreign currency for the Egyptian economy: Suez Canal

Fareed Kotb/Anadolu via Getty Images Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Houthi rebels based in Yemen launched another attack on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea Thursday, sending an explosive, unmanned vessel near a US Navy ship — within a day of warnings from a US-led coalition, dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian, meant to protect the area.

The attacks, which have been ongoing for weeks, threaten to significantly disrupt the flow of commercial goods through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, an important route for trade between Asia and Western countries. It’s an approach that, for relatively little cost to the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors, has exposed the ineffectiveness of the US coalition response — and has ratcheted up the tension in the region, which has been increasing on multiple fronts after Hamas’ attacks in Israel on October 7.

In a statement Wednesday, the US and its 12 coalition partners issued a final warning to the Houthis that they would “bear the responsibility of the consequences” should they continue attacks on container ships transiting the maritime route. 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, though 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 the vicinity of multiple commercial vessels,” according to a statement from US Central Command.

With the Houthis committed to antagonizing commercial vessels, the question of a possible response remains — and the coalition doesn’t have many clear options that could effectively stop the attacks without risking open conflict with Iran. Meanwhile, with Iranian support, the Houthis have shown that their approach is effective, even against the world’s major naval power.

The Houthis hit the West where it hurts

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

The Houthis have carried out around two dozen attacks on commercial vessels in the area since November 18, NAVCENT Commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday, including launching ballistic missiles, drones, and now a USV. The US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian on December 18, naming Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, the Seychelles, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Norway, as partners in the effort.

As Craig Fuller, the CEO of FreightWaves, told Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast this week, “The United States has the largest navy in the world, it’s also one of the only blue water navies— it can go anywhere, defend any place on the planet,” and “the whole purpose of that is to protect freight lanes. One of the primary calls of the US Navy is its role to protect commerce and ensure global trade.”

Cooper told the press that “about 1,500 merchant ships have safely transited the waters of the Red Sea since the operation began.” But as Bloomberg reported in late December, shortly after the coalition was announced, shipping traffic was down 40 percent in the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. Both that waterway and the Suez Canal are critical to international trade — not just the oil and energy products that come from the Middle East, but container ships that carry consumer goods, as well as the machinery and parts necessary for manufacturing, affecting supply chains at several different levels.

And even if some cargo ships are transiting safely, the increased insurance costs or risks could be too much for some companies to bear. Furthermore, despite US warnings, the attacks haven’t stopped. “It’s very clear from the way the conflict has proceeded in the way the Houthi attacks have escalated, even as the US has tried to respond, that what the US is doing is not really having a deterrent effect of any sort,” Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in 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 pull its vessels from the Red Sea route in favor of a longer route around the Cape of Good Hope “for the foreseeable future” after Houthi militants attacked one of its ships January 1. Maersk controls about a sixth of global container shipping, according to Reuters, and the alternate route tacks on as much as three weeks to shipping times.

Not only does it take longer for products to reach their destinations, but the extra time also leads to extra costs for shipping companies — for fuel, salaries, and insurance, for example — as shipping firm Hapag-Lloyd told Reuters Friday. Companies then pass on those increases to consumers.

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

The US has few good options

The US told the Houthis Wednesday that they should not expect another warning should they continue their attacks in the region; now that that warning has been ignored, the coalition’s plan for a response has to deter attacks without escalating the overall regional conflict. But it’s not clear the coalition can actually accomplish that task.

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

There are many complications in using force against the Houthis, not the least of which is that many of their weapons systems are mobile. But, as Kavanagh said, there’s only so far the US can go in retaliating. “They can shoot down the drones and missiles, which is inefficient and very costly” for the US. “They can take a step up from that and strike targets, inside of Yemen, the staging areas where some of these fast boats are, that unmanned sea vessels are leaving from or, as they’ve already done, try to attack ammunition or munitions depots. But then above that, what’s the next step that you take that doesn’t lead to direct attacks on Iran?”

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

Critically, the Houthi attacks have not targeted oil tankers or other energy cargo, as Fuller pointed out — preserving one of the region’s most important commodities so as not to inflame regional actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, who hope to stop a wider regional escalation.

“Most of the countries in the region have opted out [of the US-led coalition], because they’re worried about Iran, and … they don’t want to be seen as protecting Israel, because the Houthis have said that Israel is their target.” Kavanagh said. “So there has been very big coalition response [that] has been very ineffective at the same time — the goals of that coalition have also been very unclear. So they have very little participation, very limited capabilities, and no clear goals.”

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 killed Tuesday, apparently by Israel. The war has also brought about renewed attacks on US posts in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed groups, and the Iraqi government is preparing to remove US coalition forces from the country.

“​​People think about escalation in the region as like a switch was flipped — and I think it’s important to recognize that the alternative is also possible,” Kavanagh said. “You actually see it happening already, which is just sort of a steady increase of violence, and tit-for-tat strikes get gradually more and suddenly, you’re at [an] intolerable level.”


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *