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The Importance of a United Response in the Red Sea



Iran-backed Houthi rebels, known for their role in Yemen’s brutal civil war, have been attacking ships passing through the Red Sea since November 2023. The recent decision by the European Union to launch a naval mission is a positive development for Western strategic interests. In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable region, Europe must stand shoulder to shoulder with its allies to uphold shared values and international law. The consequences of inaction would be severe.


Houthi attacks have focused on the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, a maritime bottleneck located between the Horn of Africa and the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. “Bab al-Mandeb” translates as “Gate of Tears'', a reference to the dangerous crosscurrents, winds, reefs and shoals which have long made these waters perilous. This name remains fitting in light of the hundreds of ships being rerouted 4,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid Houthi attacks.


The Houthis have used cruise missiles, drones and anti-ship ballistic missiles ostensibly as a protest against Israel’s invasion of Gaza and to assert its position among the so-called “axis of resistance”. Engaging in attacks also serves to distract its public, who have been demonstrating against the Houthi regime. To uphold freedom of navigation, in December the United States announced a “multinational security initiative” comprising the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. Efforts involved joint naval patrols and intelligence support.


Despite multilateral actions, Houthi attacks continue. In one encounter on the 31st of December, while responding to a distress call from a merchant vessel, helicopters from two United States warships sank three Houthi boats. Ten Houthi militants were killed. With freight companies understandably reluctant to resume shipping through the Red Sea, the United States and United Kingdom have begun airstrikes against Houthi targets. Escalating intervention in the Red Sea has resulted in growing fears of the Israel-Hamas War spreading across the region. These concerns are not misplaced and have only burgeoned since the killing of three United States soldiers by another Iranian proxy in Jordan. This accentuates the importance of measured intervention.


The economic consequences of Houthi actions are a significant component of this problem. As a vital artery in the global shipping system, persistent trade disruption will have far-reaching effects on the world economy. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is particularly important that shipping is protected in these waters, as Europe increasingly sources its oil from the Middle East rather than Russia. As the European Union is a significant stakeholder, the organisation should share responsibility for finding a solution.


Despite hopes that a robust response would discourage further violence, belligerent Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has vowed to retaliate against “American aggression”. To the astute observer, this position would not have come as a surprise. The Houthis have developed a reputation for obstinance in the extreme, having resisted extensive military intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.


Although risks are associated with attacking the Houthis and deterring them will require persistence, intervention is necessary. The West must balance protecting maritime shipping and avoiding becoming embroiled in a broader conflict. Should the Arab nations perceive the West to be overly supportive of Israel, violence could quickly proliferate across the region. Fortunately, President Biden has clarified that the United States does not seek a war with Iran. This was demonstrated by the response to the attack in Jordan, which involved attacks outside of Iranian territory. Considering the domestic problems Iran faces, a conflict with the United States will not be high on Tehran’s list of priorities either.


Without a doubt, there are more pressing foreign policy issues for Western policymakers than Houthi economic hostage-taking. Nevertheless, it remains a strategic interest to protect the sea lanes through measured intervention. Failing to enforce international law would set a dangerous precedent that risks encouraging Iran’s myriad proxies and other similarly bellicose groups. As the probability of success is highest when the West stands united, the European Union’s decision to share the burden should be welcomed as a step in the right direction.



Image: Africom Pao/via The Warzone

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