The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen carried out their most extensive attack yet on commercial shipping in the Red Sea on January 8th, unleashing a combination of drones and missiles in a brazen assault on vessels transiting one of the world’s busiest and most important maritime trade routes. The unprecedented scale of the attack drew swift condemnation from world leaders and prompted allied naval forces led by the United States and Britain to step up patrols and intercept operations in the region.
Massive Barrage Targets International Shipping
According to US and UK military officials, the Houthis simultaneously launched 21 drones and 8 cruise missiles in a choreographed attack clearly intended to inflict damage on merchant shipping and global trade. The US Navy destroyer USS Laboon and the British frigate HMS Diamond were among the naval vessels operating in the Red Sea at the time and successfully shot down all of the incoming drones and missiles using ship-based defensive weapon systems before they could reach their intended targets.
“This attack involved more drones and missiles than the Houthis have ever launched at one time,” said Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command. “It was clearly coordinated to maximize the potential to disrupt shipping and global trade.”
While none of the Houthi munitions struck any ships, the scale and sophistication of the simultaneous drone and missile attack highlights the increasing danger the Iran-backed rebels pose to one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes. The Red Sea is a crucial maritime route connecting Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with approximately 12% of global trade transiting through its waters every year.
International Response Renews Focus on Securing Red Sea Shipping
The unprecedented Houthi attack immediately drew condemnation from world leaders and spurred renewed international efforts to protect shipping in the Red Sea.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken denounced the Houthis for “once again threatening civilian shipping and global trade” and said the US would be raising the issue at the United Nations Security Council. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps credited the quick actions of the HMS Diamond for saving civilian lives and said Britain would hold the Houthis accountable for their “completely unacceptable actions.”
In addition to diplomatic pressure, the brazen assault led to an immediate bolstering of naval forces from the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis since 2015. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched additional warships to patrol the Red Sea shipping lanes and intercept any further Houthi drone or missile attacks.
The increased naval presence builds on the US-led Combined Maritime Forces that have been escorting merchant vessels through the Red Sea and conducting maritime security operations in the region for years. Earlier this month, US Central Command also announced the creation of a new multinational maritime security force called Operation Prosperity Guardian focused on protecting shipping specifically in the southern Red Sea and around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
Concerns Growing Over Iran’s Support for Houthi Capabilities
While the Houthi rebels have been attacking Saudi coalition vessels and targets in Yemen with drones and missiles for years, their capabilities have grown rapidly with extensive support from their key backer, Iran.
US officials have warned for months that Iran is smuggling more sophisticated weapons, technologies and components into Yemen that allow the Houthis to assemble their own advanced drones and missiles to launch deeper strikes with greater accuracy. There are also indications Iran may be providing completed missile systems from their own domestic arsenals.
Independent analysts note the cruise missiles used in this latest attack bear striking similarities to Iran’s Soumar system, which has a range of up to 1,350 miles. If Iran is actually supplying the Houthis with such high-end munitions, it represents a dangerous escalation and expansion of Iranian support for the rebel forces.
Outlook: Pressure Mounting for New Ceasefire Deal
While the Houthis suffered no losses in their latest failed attack on shipping in the Red Sea, their brazen actions have brought swifter international condemnation and sparked renewed naval deployments against them. Over the longer term, such incidents may increase the pressure on the rebels to agree to new ceasefire talks and limit their ongoing attacks on Saudi Arabia.
After a 6-month truce in 2022, Yemen’s warring sides failed to extend or build on the temporary peace. However, efforts have continued behind the scenes to renew negotiations. Just days before the Red Sea attack, US officials reportedly submitted a new proposal for a 6-month truce that would halt all Houthi cross-border strikes and ground offensives.
With the rebels continuing their assaults – despite Yemen facing one of the worst humanitarian crises globally – patience for the Houthis may be running thin. Their key allies like Iran also cannot provide unlimited funds and weapons. While the Houthis show no signs of capitulating militarily for now, severe economic pressures and evolving diplomatic efforts could eventually force their hand back to the negotiating table later this year.
Subheading: Table With Timeline
|January 8th, 2024
|Houthis launch unprecedented 29 drone/missile attack on shipping in Red Sea
|January 9th, 2024
|US, UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE condemn attack and deploy more naval forces
|January 10th, 2024
|UN Security Council votes on resolution condemning Houthis
|Early 2024 Outlook
|Pressure grows on Houthis to agree new ceasefire deal
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