The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles at a UAE-flagged cargo ship owned by a US company on January 14th, marking a serious escalation of the conflict. The attack took place in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. While no casualties were reported, it raises concerns over shipping security in the vital Bab al-Mandab strait.
Background of the Yemen 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. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in 2015 to try and restore the government. The warring sides have been stuck in stalemate for years.
The Houthis are an Iran-aligned rebel group from northern Yemen. They have launched missiles, drones, and attacks into Saudi Arabia and the UAE throughout the war. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes trying to beat back Houthi advances. The fighting has killed over 150,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
|Key Players in the War
|Iran-backed rebel group
|Internationally recognized, based in Aden
|Backing government, conducting airstrikes
|Supports Houthis politically and militarily
Attempts at peace talks have repeatedly failed. In late 2022, a 6-month UN-brokered truce expired without renewal as both sides resumed offensives. Tensions have been rising since.
Details of the Attack
On January 14th, the Houthis fired cruise missiles at a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship around 15 nautical miles off the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.
The ship, named Eagle Centurion, is operated by the Dubai-based Glory Arrow Shipping and owned by the New York-based Eagle Shipping International. It was carrying cars and heading to Jeddah Islamic Port in Saudi Arabia when it was attacked.
UK maritime security officials reported that the vessel and crew were safe with only minor damage. Centcom later confirmed that a missile fired by the Houthis struck the ship but said there were no casualties.
The Houthis claimed responsibility and vowed to target any ships in the Red Sea belonging to the Saudi-led coalition countries. A Houthi military spokesman called it retaliation for the coalition’s blockade of Yemeni ports which he said has created a humanitarian crisis.
Security experts say the missiles used appear to have been Chinese-designed C-802’s, likely supplied by Iran to the Houthis. The attack demonstrates the rebels’ expanding maritime strike capabilities.
The missile strike drew widespread condemnation and warnings about threats to shipping. Leaders of the Saudi-led coalition, the US, UK and others accused Iran of enabling Houthi aggression through advanced weapons transfers.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry called it a “terrorist attack” and act of “piracy” that threatens freedom of navigation. The UAE and UK issued similar statements.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Saudi, Emirati and Israeli officials to coordinate a response. The White House said President Biden directed his team to support de-escalation but would “continue helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory.”
US Launches Airstrikes in Yemen
On January 15th, the US military conducted airstrikes targeting Houthi infrastructure used to launch maritime attacks. Centcom said the strikes destroyed 3 weapons sites and would degrade the Houthis’ ability to threaten shipping and worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the Royal Air Force cooperated with the US in carrying out the strikes, calling it a “single limited action.”
Analysts see the joint airstrikes as a signal to Iran not to escalate through Houthi proxy forces. But they warn of potential retaliation, continuing high tensions in the region.
|Targets of US Airstrikes
|Weapons storage facility | Sanaa airport
| Weapons storage caves | Al-Hodeidah port
|Training camp | Al-Durayhimi district
The Houthis condemned what they labeled American-British aggression and “continued siege on Yemen.” A senior Houthi official told Reuters that the US strikes would only compound the humanitarian crisis and that they have the right to respond.
Concerns Over Wider Conflict
There are increasing worries that clashes could spiral out of control and impact global energy supplies. Benchmark Brent crude rose 2% to over $86 per barrel after the attack.
Around 30% of worldwide shipping petroleum moves through the Bab al-Mandab strait where the attack occurred. Only 4 miles wide at points, it’s a strategic chokepoint for Middle East oil exports to Europe and North America.
If tensions boil over into the strait, analysts say Iran-backed groups could attack tankers or trade could face disruption. That could send oil and gas prices soaring.
Centcom chief General Erik Kurilla stressed that freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is essential to global security and economic prosperity.
The US Navy has stepped up patrols in the area after Houthi threats to blockade the strait. But security experts say Navy ships likely can’t fully protect commercial traffic from missile strikes.
Outlook for Yemen as Tensions Rise
Diplomatic efforts are underway to deescalate tensions between the Houthis and Saudi coalition after the flare up of violence. But the path ahead looks challenging.
The Houthis appear intent on ramping up attacks to gain leverage in stalled peace talks and relief from coalition blockades. Iran seems ready to keep arming them with missiles and drones.
Saudi Arabia and allies are determined to keep up intense air campaigns while enforcing strict port closures to stop weapons flows. Many observers now believe accepting Houthi demands risks rewarding bad behavior.
With both sides digging in while proxies shadowbox, the likeliest prospect seems to be continued brutal stalemate. That spells only more hardship for Yemenis suffering one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises.
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