The Red Sea has become a flashpoint for conflict as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen intensify attacks on commercial shipping and US and allied naval forces patrolling the strategic waterway. Over the past week, the US Navy has intercepted and destroyed multiple drones and missiles fired by Houthis towards ships transiting the Red Sea and nearby waters. These provocative actions risk disrupting vital global trade routes and necessitating a forceful response.
Timeline of Recent Attacks
The Houthis have stepped up assaults on vessels in the Red Sea over the last month:
- December 24: US forces shoot down 4 Houthi drones in the southern Red Sea^
- December 26: Up to 17 Houthi drone and missile attacks targeted ships in the Red Sea over a 10 hour period^
- December 27: Houthis fire a drone and ballistic missile at US Navy destroyers USS The Sullivans and USS Mason – both are shot down^
- December 28: USS Mason shoots down another Houthi anti-ship missile using SM-2 missiles^
|# of Attacks
|4 drone attacks
|US shot down drones
|Up to 17
|Ships in Red Sea
|1 drone, 1 missile
Strategic Value of Red Sea Shipping
The Red Sea is one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes, providing access between Europe and Asia. Over 10% of global trade transits through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait at the sea’s southern entrance near Yemen^. Keeping this route secure is vital for international commerce.
The Houthis have been fighting a years-long civil war against Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Experts say the rebels are now targeting Red Sea shipping to pressure the Saudi-led coalition battling them in Yemen, and to push foreign naval forces out of the region^. Their backers in Iran likely see pressuring Red Sea traffic as way to retaliate against US sanctions and military posture targeting Tehran.
“There is an Iranian dimension… it’s is a way of telling the United States and its regional allies that if you mess with Iran, we have capacities to mess with you in places that might hurt,” – Gerald Feierstein, Middle East Institute
Range of Responses Under Consideration
The US and allies have deployed extensive air and naval forces to protect Red Sea shipping, but must balance deterring Houthi aggression with avoiding outright war.
Potential US-led responses include^:
- Expanding naval escort operations to accompany vulnerable commercial vessels
- Stepping up interceptions of Houthi drone and missile launches
- Targeted airstrikes on Houthi coastal launch sites
- Wider ranging air campaign to degrade Houthi offensive capacities
- Securing a ceasefire deal in Yemen civil war
More aggressive actions risk sparking a regional conflict, while restraint could embolden Houthis.
“There are no good options, only less bad ones,” – Elisabeth Kendall, Oxford University Yemen expert
The attacks and potential for escalation have garnered global attention. China has urged restraint by all parties, while repeat incidents could test US resolve.
“Beijing is closely following the situation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden” – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson^
India and Japan both condemned the targeting of civilian shipping. 14 countries now back the US-led naval coalition patrolling regional waters^.
Outlook and Implications
Sporadic Houthi harassment of Red Sea shipping looks set to continue in the near term. But closing the narrow Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint could prove catastrophic for the global economy. It remains to be seen if the rebels would risk that level of escalation.
For the US, deterring Houthi aggression without being sucked deeper into Yemen’s intractable war will require deft diplomacy and force posture signaling. Iran’s role backing the rebel missile and drone attacks also augurs badly for hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
How the situation develops in the tense Red Sea region in the weeks ahead will prove an early test for US foreign policy in 2023. Skillful crisis management will be at a premium.
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