Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a missile strike on a Norwegian-owned oil tanker in the Red Sea on Monday, marking the latest concerning escalation of attacks threatening global shipping routes.
The incident transpired near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical chokepoint bordering Yemen through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass. Details remain fluid, but early reports suggest the rebel group launched a cruise missile at the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Strinda as it traversed the strait.
Tanker Hit But Avoids Serious Damage
The Strinda, owned by Norwegian firm Odfjell, was reportedly carrying a cargo of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore when it came under attack. Odfjell said the vessel sustained minor damage but no injuries nor spillage of contents.
It remains unclear whether the Houthis specifically targeted the Strinda due to its cargo or ownership. However, the rebels did explicitly threaten last month to hamper vessels sailing to or from Israel over the ongoing blockade of Gaza.
French Warship Intercepts Additional Houthi Drones
As the situation unfolded, a French naval frigate providing escort to the Strinda reportedly intercepted several explosive-laden Houthi drones approaching the tanker. Unconfirmed reports suggest some armed speedboats may have also approached the tanker.
The French Defense Ministry later confirmed the actions, saying its forces were operating as part of the European-led Agenor mission aimed at securing freedom of navigation in the Red Sea basin.
Escalating Tensions in Strategic Waterways
The strike comes amid elevated tensions and attacks in the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and nearby waterways. Just last month, an Israeli-owned vessel suffered minor damage from an Iranian-supplied drone off the coast of Oman.
In recent years the Houthis have systematically targeted commercial and military ships in waters around Yemen using anti-ship missiles, bomb-laden drone boats, sea mines, and other weapons. Such attacks have spurred marine insurers to raise rates for vessels transiting high-risk areas.
Monday’s incident is the first Houthi strike directly affecting a commercial ship since late November when the rebels temporarily seized a UAE-flagged cargo vessel. It follows explicit threats to hamper ships bound for Israel and comes amid heightened clashes along the Israel-Gaza border.
International Response Under Discussion
The United States slammed the “unacceptable act of violence,” saying it would continue working closely with allies and partners to respond to such provocations. The U.S. Navy was reportedly tracking the situation from nearby warships.
On Tuesday, U.S. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters that the U.S. is spearheading discussions with Israel and twelve other nations about potentially coordinating some kind of maritime naval force in response to the attacks.
Few details were provided, but the coalition would likely focus on bolstering defenses, coordinating patrols, and sharing intelligence. Past U.S.-led patrols have successfully deterred Iranian aggression in strategic chokepoints.
Houthis Continue Military Offensive Despite Truce Talks
The fresh attacks further jeopardize ongoing UN-led efforts to extend a 6-month nationwide truce expiring on December 19. The Houthis continue aggressively pursuing territorial gains ahead of potential peace talks while simultaneously ramping up long-range missile and drone attacks.
On Sunday Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said the path to peace remains marred by a lack of seriousness from the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Outstanding issues include payment of public sector salaries, opening roads, and allowing fuel imports through Houthi-held Hodeidah port.
With the window for extension narrowing, the UN’s Hans Grundberg is scrambling to secure concessions from both sides. But the Houthis appear unlikely to stand down or reduce external attacks barring tangible commitments and changes from Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni partners.
Background of the Conflict
The Houthis are an Iran-aligned rebel group indigenously rooted in Yemen’s north. They have been at war with Yemen’s internationally recognized government based in the south since 2014 when they seized the capital Sanaa.
In 2015 a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the government in what has become a prolonged and ruinous conflict. The fighting has killed tens of thousands and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with over three-quarters of Yemen’s population reliant on aid and protection.
Outlook: Further Strikes Likely absent Progress in Peace Talks
In the wake of Monday’s attack on the Norwegian tanker, marine trackers reported another vessel narrowly avoided missiles fired from Houthi-held territory on Tuesday near the Bab el-Mandeb strait. The persisting danger to shipping is unlikely to abate barring meaningful progress in UN-mediated peace talks before December 19.
With the window for an extension rapidly closing, the onus is on Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government to put forward confidence-building measures demonstrating seriousness about ending the conflict. These include lifting restrictions on fuel imports and civil servant salaries in Houthi-held areas.
Absent such gestures, the Houthis will likely continue military operations while launching further strikes against oil tankers and other commercial vessels traversing Red Sea shipping lanes. The economic impact could grow more acute ifpersisting dangers prompt marine insurers to raise rates or restrict areas of coverage.
For now, the Biden administration looks intent on providing defensive support to deter attacks rather than pursuing direct military action against the Houthis. But any move toward coordinated naval patrols risks greater direct confrontation with Iran should its support for rebel allies persist.
Table summarizing recent key attacks in region:
|Dec 12, 2022
|Nov. 15, 2022
|Gulf of Oman
|Pacific Zircon tanker
|Oct. 29, 2022
|Ayla cargo ship
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