The Red Sea has become a flashpoint for conflict as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have stepped up attacks on commercial ships transiting the vital waterway. On January 3rd, the U.S. and its allies issued a stern warning that continued assaults would be met with a “significant” collective response. This ultimatum came after the U.S. Navy sank three Houthi boats on New Year’s Eve.
Background of the Conflict
Yemen has been mired in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition to try to restore the ousted government. The result has been a bloody stalemate and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis have increasingly used drones and missiles to strike inside Saudi Arabia and target vessels going through the Bab al-Mandab strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is a vital route for global shipping and energy shipments. The rebels have been stepping up attacks in recent months, supported by their patron Iran.
On December 31st, two boats operated by the Houthis approached a U.S. Navy towing vessel at high speed. Warning shots were fired but the boats continued their approach, and the Navy responded by sinking the vessels along with a nearby third Houthi boat. The U.S. said it acted in self-defense against an imminent threat.
|December 31, 2023
|U.S. Navy sinks three Houthi boats in Red Sea
The Houthi military spokesman claimed they had been targeting a commercial ship in the Red Sea and accused the U.S. of “piracy”. He also threatened crude oil companies working in Yemen with strikes.
Ultimatum from U.S. and Allies
On January 3rd, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE and nine other nations issued a joint statement condemning Iran’s provision of lethal aid enabling Houthi attacks that “threaten freedom of navigation through this critical global chokepoint.”
They demanded an immediate end to assaults in and around the Red Sea, warning of a “significant response” if attacks persisted. The White House said “all options are on the table” for protecting vital shipping lanes. However, direct strikes against Houthi territory in Yemen face difficulties, as past assaults have at times killed many civilians.
The U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it was “considering action against Iran’s lethal aid network of anti-ship missiles…as well as Houthi leadership.”
Houthi Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree responded that ongoing drone and missile attacks against the Saudi-led coalition showed “the credibility, competence and ability” of rebel forces to target vital sites whenever needed.
Concerns Over Global Trade and Energy
About 40 ships have reportedly been attacked in Red Sea waters since 2016. The latest incidents have raised worries over threats to seaborne trade, as the area is one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.
Over 10% of global trade goes through Bab al-Mandab each year, including oil tankers carrying some 4.8 million barrels per day of crude from the Middle East to Europe, Asia and North America. Even temporary shipping disruptions could impact energy prices and supply chains.
Following the Houthi attacks, ship owners association BIMCO warned its members to avoid sailing through the southern Red Sea, causing shipping firms to reroute vessels around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. This longer journey ties up ships and delays deliveries of key goods.
Continued instability in the region may also undermine economic ties between Gulf Arab states that backed the ousted Yemeni government and the Houthis’ rival bloc, which includes Iran and Qatar. Several Gulf nations have been working to rebuild relations with Iran and Qatar after years of animosity.
Outlook Going Forward
The White House is reportedly weighing new military options to deter Houthi assaults while avoiding escalation, but past U.S. strikes have failed to stop the rebels. Unless underlying issues in the Yemen war are addressed, attacks may persist even in the face of reprisals.
Iran seems unlikely to curb support for the Houthis after investing heavily in them to pressure Saudi Arabia, advance strategic goals, and tie down Western forces. Tehran may even step up lethal aid if confronted. However, this risks provoking a wider regional conflict.
For now the Saudi-led coalition shows no sign of relenting in the Yemen war. With peace talks stalled, the bloody status quo may drag on even as tensions boil over in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. The U.S., allies and rivals all have roles in this complex conflict with global implications.
- Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea have increased, raising risks of supply chain issues and higher oil prices
- On Jan. 3 the U.S. and allies warned of reprisals if assaults persist, after the Navy recently sank Houthi boats
- Iran’s support for the Houthis drives rebel capabilities but risks wider conflict
- Peace in Yemen remains elusive, suggesting instability and tensions may continue
The situation remains fluid, but the Red Sea is clearly developing into a dangerous flashpoint with repercussions far beyond Yemen’s borders.
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