June 24, 2024

Reluctance Among Allies Threatens US Red Sea Naval Coalition

Written by AiBot

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Dec 28, 2023

The US is facing reluctance from key allies to contribute naval assets to a proposed US-led coalition aimed at protecting shipping in the Red Sea against Houthi rebel attacks out of Yemen. The tepid response risks undermining the coalition before it even launches, depriving it of critical international participation.

Background on Houthi Threat

The Red Sea has become an increasingly dangerous zone for commercial shipping due to regular attacks by Houthi rebels based in Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthis have been fighting a years-long civil war against the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is supported by Saudi Arabia.

As the conflict has dragged on, the Houthis have staged progressively bolder attacks aimed at targets in Saudi Arabia and vessels transiting the Red Sea. In recent years, the frequency of Houthi drone and missile strikes has markedly increased:

Year Houthi Attacks on Saudi Arabia
2020 380
2021 549
2022 746

The Houthis view such attacks as retaliation for the Saudi-led coalition’s own airstrikes in Yemen, which have caused extensive civilian casualties. However, the expanding threat to neutral shipping has raised international alarm.

In January 2022, a Houthi attack killed three crew members of a fuel tanker docked in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Additional assaults on vessels flagged to other nations have ensued, including a lethal strike on a Turkish freighter in March 2022 and an attack that set an Greek oil tanker ablaze in October 2022.

As 2023 opened, a Houthi strike killed two crew members of a Liberian-flagged ship off Yemen’s port of Hodeidah on January 8. With seemingly indiscriminate attacks endangering vessels of many nations, pressure built for a coordinated international response along one of the world’s busiest maritime trade corridors.

US Proposes Naval Coalition

Against this backdrop, the US military’s Central Command proposed the formation of an international naval coalition – dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian – to escort commercial shipping through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The plan calls for contributing nations to commit surface warships, aircraft and surveillance assets. Forces would patrol a 655 km designated security zone and accompany vulnerable commercial vessels.

Participating nations would gain valuable real-world training, strengthen mil-to-mil ties, and help secure the global economy by keeping this vital lane open, US officials contended.

However, the US insisted the force would not directly engage Houthi forces, keeping its focus narrowly on escort duties. This was likely aimed at easing allies’ concerns about being pulled into Yemen’s complex conflict.

Initial US planning envisioned a 60-ship coalition comprised of regional and international partners. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia’s involvement was seen as particularly crucial.

Centcom Commander Gen Erik Kurilla traveled to Saudi Arabia on December 7th to personally seek Riyadh’s buy-in. After the visit, Saudi Arabia issued positive public statements supporting the naval initiative. Washington believed it had secured a vital partner.

European Allies Voice Reluctance

However, in mid-December signs of hesitation began emerging from key European allies.

Spain signaled it would not commit ships to Prosperity Guardian, preferring instead to focus resources on the European Union’s counter-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez later stated he was not necessarily opposed to a parallel EU Red Sea mission, but publicly questioned whether Prosperity Guardian’s escort concept would effectively deter Houthi aggression.

On December 23rd, Italy and France informed Washington they were also opting out of Prosperity Guardian. Neither country ruling out future participation, but both wanted additional time to deliberate.

The tepid response from these seafaring NATO allies was a clear setback for American plans. US officials, however, continued working diplomatic channels to secure endorsements.

Meanwhile, Israel and Bahrain voiced strong support. Both share Saudi Arabia’s threat perceptions regarding Iran’s influence in Yemen and the Red Sea arena.

Saudi Reversal Deals Major Blow

Washington’s hopes to rally participation took a body blow on December 25th, when Saudi Arabia unexpectedly backed away from Prosperity Guardian. Despite previously signaling its intent to assume a leading role, Riyadh pulled a sudden about-face.

Saudi officials gave no concrete reason for declining to commit naval assets after weeks of close consultations with the US. But the decision was almost certainly influenced by a desire to safeguard progress in ongoing peace talks with the Houthis sponsored by Oman.

Joining America’s Red Sea coalition could risk derailing Saudi attempts to deescalate tensions with the Houthis. It could also imperil much-needed relief to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis promised by an extended ceasefire agreement, which expires on December 31st.

Riyadh’s reversal prompted dismay in Washington and Tel Aviv while garnering praise from Houthi leaders. America’s failure to obtain Saudi buy-in undermined the Administration’s credibility in organizing the naval force.

Implications: Viability in Question

With Saudi Arabia’s reversing course and key European states hesitant, serious doubts have arisen over Prosperity Guardian’s viability.

The loss of important international participants greatly diminishes the deterrent credibility of the proposed coalition. It may be insufficient to compel a change in Houthi strategic calculations regarding Red Sea strikes.

Moving forward with only minor regional backers would constitute an embarrassment and reputational blow for the Biden Administration. This could reinforce narratives of US influence being supplanted by actors like China, Russia and Iran.

However, scrapping plans outright would allow the Houthi maritime threat to persist unchecked and serve as an admission of US inability to organize collective action. This would pose risks to allied and partner interests in one of the world’s most vital waterways.

Administration officials face a lack of good options. Difficult decisions on Prosperity Guardian’s future await in early 2023. President Biden may have to choose between a dangerously degraded naval coalition or no multinational force at all along the Red Sea.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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