Ominous escalation

Mohamed Mansour, Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Last week’s US-UK missile attacks against the Houthis in Yemen have increased tensions in the Red Sea region and set the stage for further escalation, writes Mohamed Mansour

Ominous escalation


At dawn on 12 January, the US and UK carried out missile strikes against multiple targets linked with the Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement in western Yemen in response to the Houthis’ targeting of maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

These are the first known US airstrikes in Yemen since the strike that killed Qassim Al-Rimi, leader of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) groupin January 2020. They also constitute the first direct US military attack against the Ansarullah Movement since the missile attack against three Yemeni radar sites on 13 October 2016.

Last week’s US-British missile barrage against the Houthis has notched up tensions in the Red Sea region and set the stage for further escalation. The climate was already charged, and since 19 November last year the Houthis had carried out 26 drone and missile attacks against civilian and military vessels in the southern Red Sea north of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait.

Most of the attacks were thwarted. The US aircraft carrier Eisenhower, the British frigate Diamond, the French frigate Languedoc, and other US and European warships intercepted around 80 drones and15 ballistic missiles and destroyed three speedboats.

The last Houthi attack before the US-UK airstrike on Yemen on 12 January occurred on 10 January and was a major operationusing 21 drones and missiles. Although all of them were reported to have been intercepted by US and British naval units, this was apparently the last straw for the Western countries.

Twelve countries – the US, Italy, Bahrain, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK – released a statement warning the Houthis that if they continued conducting such activities in the Red Sea they would “bear the consequences.”

The Houthi attacks on commercial ships entering the Red Sea through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait had become so constant that tankers and cargo ships were being forced to divert course and take an alternative route. The Houthi strikes, some of which hit their mark, also had other security and economic repercussions, as it was feared that the disruption would invite a resurgence of piracy in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia and that international shipping companies would stop using the Bab Al-Mandab – Red Sea – Suez Canal maritime route.

Then there is the economic fallout.The Houthi maritime threat has caused several shipping companies to take contingency measures, whether to pause transit through the Red Sea or to divert vessels around the Cape of Good Hope. They include some of the world’s largest shipping firms, including the Italian-Swiss Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the Danish-owned Maersk, the German-owned Hapag Lloyd, and the French CMA CGM group.

Maersk and Hapag Lloyd alone account for 22 per cent of the global containership market (15 and seven per cent, respectively).

The security risks in the vicinity of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait have driven up risk insurance and cargo rates. The cost of shipping a 12-metre container from Asia to northern Europe has more than doubled to over $4,000 and from Asia to the Mediterranean to $5,175. Some firms have posted even higher rates for these routes.

Although North American ports are less affected by the situation in the Middle East, freight costs have increased by at least 30 per cent for goods destined to the US’ eastern seaboard via the Suez Canal. The cost of shipping a 12-metre container from Asia to the east coast has shot up by 55 per cent to $3,900 to the east coast and by 63 per cent to $2,700 to the west coast of the US.

With the continued Houthi naval operations in the area, groups of US, British, and French naval vessels have taken up permanent stations in the vicinity of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhowerhas also taken up position in the area. Thisnuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its group of associated vessels, which consists of four missile destroyers and the Ohio submarine, represent the core of the “Guardian of Prosperity” Operation against the Houthis, which also includes two British frigates and a destroyer and a Dutch frigate, with a Danish frigate due to join soon.

China, India, Italy, France, and South Korea have independent naval presences in the area.

Iran also has ships nearby. Tehran had previously sent its Alborz warship into the Red Sea to join the Bushehr support ship and the Behshad command and intelligence ship. However, on 10 January, the three ships turned southwards towards the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and observers believe they will return to Iranian ports in the coming days as part of a naval rotation.

Iranian naval vessels are usually deployed in the Bab Al-Mandab and Red Sea vicinity for three-month stints, apart from the command and intelligence ship which remains for longer periods.

Signs of an impending US strike against Yemen began to accumulate over the past two weeks. There was a sudden increase in US transport aircraft flights towards Djibouti from US bases in Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait. As of 6 January, RQ-4 drones were dispatched on reconnaissance missions over Yemen from the Italian Sigonella naval air station.

Shortly before the airstrikes, the US Air Force’s RC-135 electronic reconnaissance aircraft took off from the Al-Udeid base in Qatar to command the operation and provide intelligence support. The RC-135’s flight path was a sign that the airstrikes against western Yemen were about to begin.

The dawn strikes on 12 January targeted military sites, infrastructure, airports, and ballistic-missile launch locations in Sanaa, Hodeida, Hajjah, Dhamar and Taiz in Yemen. According to reports, they hit 60 targets in 28 locations. Among the most important were the Al-Dulaimi Airbase in Sanaa, the KhalanMilitary Camp in Saada, the Eighth Missile Brigade Camp in Wallan near thecapital, and the Abs Airport in the Hajjah Governorate.

A variety of naval and air force units took part in the attack. The British Air Force contributed four Typhon fighter jets that took off from Britain’s AkrotiriAirbase in Cyprus and struck the targeted sites in Saada and Hajjah. The Abs Airport was a priority because according to London it was used for launching drones and missiles towards the Red Sea. The UK destroyer the Diamond is stationed near the Bab Al-Mandab.

The main attack was carried out by the US using 22 F-18 fighter jetsthat took off from the USS Eisenhower towards targets in Hodeida, Sanaa, Taiz, and Dhamar. The F-18s, which can be equipped for aerial bombardment or electronic warfare operations, were supported by early warning aircraft.

Various auxiliary functions were performed by KC-135 refuellers, PA-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and RC-135 electronic IRS aircraft. All these had taken off from either the Sheikh Isa Base in Bahrain or Al-Udeid in Qatar. On the naval side, the USS Florida submarine and the USS Mason, theUSS Gravely andtheUSS Philippine Sea fired missiles, including around 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles, at Yemeni targets.

Although Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK, and the US were part of a joint statement on the strikes, only Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain provided direct support to the US-UK attack, according to US Central Command. Their officers were present at the base of the Prosperity Guardian Operation, the framework in which the strikes were carried out.

Regionally and internationally reactions to the US-UK attacks against Houthi targets varied from full support from Japan, Australia, France, Denmark, and Germany to condemnation from Russia, Iran, and Iraq. In between, China, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt voiced reservations out of concerns that the attacks would further drive up tensions in the region.

In the US, the American-led airstrikes against Yemen triggered harsh criticism of the Biden administration for violating Article 1 of the constitution, which prohibits the president from waging war without Congressional approval.

The Western powers’ use of missile strikes and other offensive tactics against the Houthis marks a significant shift from a defensive posture aimed at protecting vessels to a war footing. The aim is to deter the Houthis from targeting maritime traffic in the Red Sea by showing the costs they will bear from attacking ships.

Another aim is to destroy the infrastructure that the Houthis use for the attacks. The main question now is how far the Houthis and Iran will go in response to the Western powers’ escalatory step. So far, the Houthis have limited themselves to an attempted strike against a civilian cargo ship 90 nautical miles east of the southern Yemeni port of Aden.

The missile did not hit the ship, and in response the US fired more missiles into western Yemen on 13 January, although the operation was very limited. US fighter jets took off from the Eisenhower and struck targets at the Dailami Airbase in Sanaa where radar stations and missile-defence systems are located.

It appears that the Houthis have chosen to escalate their retaliation gradually. Tehran may also instruct some of the militias in its orbit in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to increase strikes against US and Israeli targets in these territories. The aim would be two-fold: to increase the costs of the Western axis’ support for the war on Gaza and to alleviate pressure on the Houthis as they continue to launch strikes into the Red Sea, thereby upping the pressure on the Guardian of Prosperity Operation and its participants.

As the situation stands, there are three possible scenarios in the Red Sea region, ranging from relatively limited Houthi retaliation to operations on a wider scale. In the first scenario, the Houthis may intensify attacks on civilian ships passing through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, thereby demonstrating that they still possess the necessary missile and logistical capacities. They may even take this a notch higher by launching a drone or missile attack against a warship belonging to one of the countries that took part in the strikes on Yemen.

The second scenario would see limited Houthi missile strikes against different bases or countries. They might increase the frequency of their missile strikes against Israel, or they may try to strike countries that assisted the US-UK strikes on Yemen byallowing the attacking aircraft to pass through their airspace or by taking part in the Guardian of Prosperity Operation. This level of retaliation would require an Iranian go-ahead, which is unlikely in the current circumstances.

Houthi strikes against airbases in Qatar and Jordan, from which aircraft that took part in the US-UK strikes took off, can also be ruled out simply because of their great distance from Yemen.

The third scenario would include medium- or large-scale missile strikes against US bases in the region. As this would expand the zone of confrontation in the region, it would naturally require an Iranian decision to enter into a face-to-face confrontation with the US.

On the other hand, Tehrancould restrain itself or pro-Iranian militias from actions that might jeopardise its relations with Doha and the recently restored relations with Riyadh. So, for example, the Al-UdeidBase in Qatar would be off-limits.

In sum, the US-UK escalation in the Red Sea may prove counterproductive. If the Houthis continue their attacks and take retaliatory action, as their reaction so far suggests they will, tensions in the region will increase. In addition to the adverse effects this will have on shipping and international trade, it will also increase the risks of widening confrontation in the region.

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

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