Europe against escalation

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Not only are there active protests against war in the Middle East, some European governments have also refused to support US-UK strikes on Yemen, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Europe against escalation
Britain s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps defending the UK and its allies, attacks on Houthi bases inYemen (photo: AFP)


Weekly marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza across European cities last weekend carried additional slogans condemning US-UK strikes on Yemen. In the last few days, US navy ships and submarines in the Red Sea bombarded targets in Yemen, while British warplanes flying from a base in Cyprus bombed other targets on Friday. More than 150 missiles and bombs hit more than 60 sites in response to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ attacks, and threats to ships passing the Bab Al-Mandab strait in support of the Palestinians being subjected to an Israeli onslaught in Gaza and the West Bank.

The US, the UK and other 10 countries recently formed a coalition to stop Houthi threats to maritime trade in the Red Sea under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian. The US-led coalition pressed for a UN Security Council resolution a couple of days before the strikes, but the UN did not authorise military action against Yemen.

Apart from the UK, which is no longer “European” after Brexit, the only European country that was cited as supporting the strikes was the Netherlands. Other major European countries like Italy, Spain and France are not part of the Red Sea coalition. Even though the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the Houthis bore responsibility for the escalation, Paris appeared to stop short of full support for the Anglo-American strikes. Some French officials quoted in media reports expressed the fear that, by joining the US-led strikes, France would lose any leverage it might have in talks to defuse tensions between Hizbullah and Israel. France has focused much of its diplomacy in recent weeks on avoiding an escalation in Lebanon. Moreover, it did not believe the attack could be deemed legitimate self-defence.

Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robes said Madrid had not joined the military action in the Red Sea because it wanted to promote peace in the region. She told reporters in Madrid this week: “Every country has to give explanations for its actions. Spain will always be committed to peace and dialogue.” Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto too made it clear he was reluctant to target the Houthis, telling Reuters that “their aggression had to be stopped without triggering a new war in the region.”

European military analysts, and some of those knowledgeable about Yemen from years of monitoring the war by a Gulf coalition against the Houthi rebels, argue that the strikes will not effectively stop Houthi threats to shipping in the Red Sea. Even American military sources quoted by the New York Times estimated that the strikes might at best have damaged “only about 20 to 30 per cent of the Houthis’ offensive capability, much of which is mounted on mobile platforms and can be readily moved or hidden.”

In the UK, a paper by the think-tank Chatham House concluded that the air strikes are “highly unlikely to have a significant impact on Houthi military capabilities, especially their maritime operations.” Yet the escalations have already regionalised Yemen’s Civil War and delayed the fragile peace process. The paper noted, “the Saudis, for instance, have stayed out – having seen their own air strikes against the Houthis fail to achieve results for nine years. Other regional players remain distant, fearful of the politics involved in attacking a group that has framed its activities in the Red Sea as in solidarity with Palestinians.”

Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the problem with the US-British strikes is that it doesn’t take much for the Houthis to make the waterway unsafe, just as it hasn’t taken so much activity from Hizbullah to cause the evacuation of up to 200,000 Israelis in north Israel. Shippers are not going to return there overnight. Let’s see what the Houthis do, but it doesn’t have to be a lot to have an effect.”

Europeans in general see the US-UK escalation against Yemen as a message to Iran and somehow part of the Sino-American trade and economic struggle. The main sufferers from disrupting shipping through the Red Sea are China and Europe, especially as the maritime line is the main route for about 30 per cent of container shipping. Oil and LNG tankers crossing Bab Al-Mandeb and the Suez Canal are mainly European imports, while Asian energy imports from the Gulf head east after the Hormuz Strait.

Since the start of the Ukraine war in 2022 and following sanctions on Russian energy exports, Europe became more reliant on US oil and gas exports. The Red Sea escalation means more European dependence on energy and trade across the Atlantic and hurts economic relations with China and East Asia.

Diverging views in the West over military escalation against Yemen are not confined to the EU and the US. Within America itself, progressive factions in President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party have harshly criticised the decision to launch retaliatory strikes against Yemen. They argued, with support from some Republicans, that President Joe Biden violated the US constitution by not seeking congressional approval first.

Some analysts see the escalation as typical behaviour for an incumbent administration in an election year. By striking Houthis, Biden’s White House may think that it is gaining more support from pro-Israel circles to help him be re-elected in November while showing it is not as “soft” on Iran as Republicans claim.

But it seems that “in any case Biden has – typically – miscalculated,” as Hammond says. “He’s not going to get any electoral benefit from this. He’s not getting electoral benefit from supporting Israel’s Gaza massacre either. It will never be enough to appease the right and he’s lost the minorities the Democrats like to think are their base: Muslims, Arabs, Blacks, etc. The young are all turning away from him. We’re watching a massive rupture between age groups that will deservedly lose him the election. He could have saved himself all this trouble by just enforcing a ceasefire in Gaza.”

Further military escalation against Yemen might be counterproductive: not stopping Houthi attacks on ships in support of Palestinians, damaging peaceful settlements in Yemen from Saudi Arabia, and further alienating Europe from US-UK objectives in the region and beyond.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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