The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have carried out additional attacks targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea over the past week, defying warnings and pushback from the United States. This escalation risks further turmoil in the vital shipping corridor and threatens to draw more external powers into the conflict.
Recent Attacks on Ships
On January 18, the Houthis claimed they used naval missiles to strike the Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker Chem Ranger in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said no such attack took place.
Just a day later on January 19 however, the Houthis said they had targeted a “military cargo ship” also in the Gulf of Aden. US officials confirmed missiles were fired at a commercial cargo vessel, but said the ship was unharmed.
Most recently, on January 24, two cargo ships sailing under the US flag came under missile fire by the Houthis while transiting the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. The US Navy destroyer USS Gravely, which was escorting the ships, responded by intercepting the missiles using its own defensive missiles.
In total, these mark at least the seventh, eighth and ninth suspected attacks on commercial vessels by the Houthis over the past two weeks. Tensions have been escalated since the US formally designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in early January.
Impact and Fallout
While damage from the recent attacks seems minimal so far, the economic impact is already being felt. Insurance rates for ships transiting the Red Sea have reportedly risen by more than 100 percent over the past two weeks. Some ship owners are considering avoiding the area entirely, instead opting for the much longer route around Africa for safer passage.
The shipping industry carries about $1 trillion worth of trade through the Gulf of Aden every year. Disruptions to this shipping route would have cascading economic consequences globally. US defense officials have vowed to take decisive action if necessary to keep the vital corridor open.
Several ships have already turned away from the area in recent days, with reports of almost a dozen waiting on the periphery until security in the Red Sea can be assured. Egypt has also closed the southern end of the Suez Canal as a precautionary measure.
The attacks have elicited warnings and condemnation from several world powers:
The United States reiterated that it would take “necessary and appropriate measures” against threats to its citizens and interests. It called upon all parties to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters.
China, which relies heavily on Middle East oil imports passing through the Gulf of Aden, urged restraint by the Houthis and called for de-escalation by all sides. It offered to mediate peace talks if needed.
Russia said it would not tolerate disruptions to shipping routes which are crucial for global trade. It has moved several navy vessels into the region as a cautionary step.
India responded to a distress call from a targeted ship earlier in January, dispatching navy helicopters to evacuate injured crew members. It has since increased naval patrols in the western Indian Ocean.
The Arab League, European Union and others roundly criticized the attacks without directly accusing the Houthis. The UN Security Council may take up the issue in coming days if aggression continues.
Background of Yemen Conflict
The increase in ship attacks is the latest episode in Yemen’s long and complex civil war between Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized government backed by Saudi Arabia and allies.
The conflict has its roots in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 which forced Yemen’s authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Saleh then aligned with the Houthi movement and helped oust Hadi in 2015, sparking Saudi military intervention to reinstate Hadi’s rule.
Over the past eight years, the war has killed hundreds of thousands through violence and famine, drawing comparisons to a “forgotten war” due to lack of global attention. Peace talks have broken down repeatedly.
The Houthis now control much of northern Yemen including the capital Sanaa. But Saudi-led airstrikes and a naval blockade have ravaged infrastructure across Houthi territory, triggering the recent increase in attacks against ships near Yemen which the Houthis view as enabling the blockade.
What Happens Next
Most expect the Houthis will continue targeting commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea shipping lanes near Yemen, at least in the short term. The US pledge to keep oil flowing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait sets up a potential confrontation with increasing attacks.
If a large oil tanker were actually damaged or sunk, thus blocking the critical channel, options could include a US-backed military effort to retake Yemeni ports controlled by the Houthis. That risks drawing regional powers deeper into the conflict and further pain for Yemeni citizens.
Alternatively the US and others may opt for direct strikes on Houthi military capabilities used to conduct the maritime attacks, though that too risks triggering retaliation.
Ultimately re-starting earnest peace talks appears the only path to de-escalation and avoiding greater turmoil. But with positions hardening on all sides, the light at the end of tunnel seems dim at best. Global powers would need to unify around and enforce a Yemen ceasefire, which remains unlikely without shifts in regional geopolitics.
In the meantime, ship owners will continue weighing risks versus rewards in entering the waters off Yemen. And the world will watch anxiously hoping the situation does not boil over in a way that puts critical global trade and energy flows in the crosshairs.
Table: Recent Attacks on Commercial Ships Near Yemen
|Naval missiles (claimed)
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