The Red Sea has become a flashpoint for conflict as Houthi rebels in Yemen escalate attacks on commercial and military ships. On January 24th, 2024, Houthi forces fired missiles at two separate US-flagged cargo vessels, marking a serious escalation that threatens to pull the US deeper into the war.
US Navy Intercepts Missiles Targeting Maersk Container Ship
According to the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely intercepted two ballistic missiles launched by Houthi rebels toward the US-flagged container ship Maersk Detroit. The missiles were fired from Yemen’s coast and targeted the ship as it was sailing in international waters in the Gulf of Aden near the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
“USS Gravely’s sophisticated onboard sensors first detected the missile threat and provided early warning to Maersk Detroit,” said US Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins. “Gravely then intercepted and destroyed the missiles using SM-2 missiles fired from its vertical launching system.”
Maersk Detroit was able to continue its voyage safely after the interception with no damage or casualties reported on board. The Danish shipping giant Maersk said it has halted operations in the Red Sea and is considering alternate routes for its vessels.
This is the second attack in under a week targeting commercial vessels linked to American interests. Last Thursday, a drone exploded on the Liberian-flagged crude oil tanker Pacific Zircon, operated by Israeli-owned company Eastern Pacific Shipping. That attack was also claimed by the Houthis.
Cargo Ships For US Defense Department Come Under Suspected Attack
In a separate incident on January 24th in the Red Sea, two other cargo vessels owned by US shipping firms reported explosions in the water. The ships were potentially targeted by Houthi rebel drones or missiles, according to a US defense official. Both vessels were damaged but able to continue their voyages.
The ships, named the Chem Ranger and Nordic Freedom, are operated by US firms Odfjell and Navios. Both Norway-based firms said the ships were carrying US military cargo bound for Saudi Arabia on behalf of the US Department of Defense’s Military Sealift Command division.
It is still unconfirmed whether Houthi forces carried out these attacks. A Houthi military spokesman claimed responsibility for missile strikes against a “US military cargo ship,” but did not provide further details.
These attacks underscore how the Houthis are stepping up assaults on vessels linked to America and its allies, accelerating the militarization of one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes.
|2 missiles intercepted by US Navy
|US military equipment
|Explosion reported near ship
|US military equipment
|Explosion reported near ship
White House Vows to “Defend Interests” But Calls For De-escalation
The White House issued a stern warning that it will act to defend American interests and vessels in the region, but also urged de-escalation by all parties.
“The White House is tracking these incidents closely and supports all necessary measures to defend US interests in the region,” said National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby. “However, we continue urging Houthi leaders to immediately cease attacks and choose the path of de-escalation and diplomacy before more lives are lost.”
The statements reflect the Biden administration’s tricky balancing act – seeking to protect American assets and allies while avoiding a dangerous quagmire in Yemen.
There are rising calls in Congress and other quarters for a more forceful US response.
“The Houthis clearly feel emboldened to attack US ships and are stepping up their aggressions,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton. “The President cannot stand by idly. We must make it clear that any attack against Americans will incur serious consequences.”
Escalating Crisis as Houthis Ramp Up Red Sea Attacks
The Red Sea acts as a key artery for world trade, with more than one tenth of global maritime traffic transiting through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait at its southern entrance. This area has become a focal point of Yemen’s civil war as the Iran-backed Houthis battle a Saudi-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
The Houthis have claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on commercial vessels over the past two weeks, as well as strikes against vessels and territory belonging to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last week, the Houthis also launched a major offensive in Yemen seeking to capture the strategic energy-rich province of Marib.
This conflict threatens to spiral out of control and pits regional rivals against one another. Experts warn of potentially severe economic impacts if the vital Red Sea trade route remains volatile.
“The Houthis are clearly seeking to pressure and coerce the Saudis and Americans, but they are playing with fire,” said Elana DeLozier, a Yemen analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Red Sea is economically vital for Asia and Europe. Continued disruptions could have enormous ripple effects around the world.”
What Next? Risk of Wider Conflict Looms
An increasingly militarized Red Sea and more brazen Houthi attacks raise the risk of direct clashes between the Houthis and ships or forces from the US and its allies. The US, UK, France and other nations have already beefed up their naval presence in the area after a December Houthi attack against a UAE-leased base in Eritrea.
The Houthis show no signs of relenting, believing they hold escalation dominance due to the vulnerability of commercial shipping lanes so close to their territory. However, they may reassess if confronted by more forceful retaliation.
Most analysts expect the US and allies will continue responding to Houthi attacks with interceptors and counter-strikes rather than drastic escalation. But the tensions create room for miscalculation.
“The grave danger is that continual, unanswered assaults could inadvertently spark a wider conflagration that nobody wants,” said Farea al-Muslimi, co-founder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “Yemen is already shattered from eight years of horrific war. Pulling it into an even bigger battle would be catastrophic for Yemenis and the region.”
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