Red Sea plot thickens

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

The internationally recognised Yemeni government is asking Western powers to help it fight the Houthis on the ground, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Red Sea plot thickens


This week a ship hit by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis sank in the southern Red Sea had to be abandoned. This is the first vessel that Houthi attacks have completely destroyed. The Houthis started targeting ships crossing the Strait of Bab Al-Mandeb into the Red Sea through the Suez Canal in November last year. They announced they were attacking Israeli ships or ships heading to or from Israeli ports in support of Palestinians under attack in Gaza.

By New Year the attacks and threats had widened as the US, the UK and a dozen countries started a campaign to militarily patrol the area and fight back against Houthi attacks. The American and British bombing of Houthi sites in Yemen did not deter the rebels, who started targeting American and British ships in the Red Sea.

The British ship Rubymar was struck by a Houthi ballistic missile on February 18 in Bab Al-Mandeb was abandoned with its cargo of fertiliser after it started leaking fuel, which could cause ecological damage to the Red Sea and its coral reefs. Since then, the Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government of Yemen stepped up its condemnation of the Houthis.

The prime minister of Yemen’s UN-recognised government, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, called the ship’s sinking “an unprecedented environmental disaster.” On his X (previously Twitter) account, wrote: “It is a new disaster for our country and our people… Every day, we pay for the Houthi militia’s adventures, which did not stop with plunging Yemen into the  disaster of the coup and the war.”

But the Houthi blamed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the Rubymar disaster. Mohamed Al-Houthi wrote on his private social media: “You have an opportunity to salvage the ship Rubymar by guaranteeing... that the relief trucks agreed upon at that time would enter Gaza.”

Though the number of attacks on ships in the Red Sea has dropped recently, the escalation is still on the rise. On Saturday, the Italian Defence Ministry said one of its vessels, the destroyer Caio Duilio, shot down a suspected Houthi drone appearing to be flying towards it in self-defence. “The terrorist attacks by the Houthis are a serious violation of international law and an attack on the safety of maritime traffic, on which our economy depends,” the ministry said.

Last week, Houthi rebels said they would “reassess” their attacks if the Israeli aggression against Gaza stopped. They reiterated that they could only reconsider their missile and drone attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea once Israel ends its aggression in the Gaza Strip. Asked if they would halt the attacks if a ceasefire deal is reached, Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdulsalam told Reuters the situation would be reassessed if the siege of Gaza ended and humanitarian aid could enter freely. He firmly said, “there will be no halt to any operations that help the Palestinian people except when the Israeli aggression on Gaza and the siege stop.”

It seems that the internationally recognised government is trying to capitalise on the last escalation to draw international support to their side against the Houthis in the 10-year Yemen conflict. A Saudi-brokered ceasefire in Yemen is still holding, even after its mandate ended, and Riyadh is keen on a political solution. The Saudis led a coalition of Gulf and Arab countries in 2015 to fight the Houthis and support the legitimate government. By the time of the ceasefire the war in Yemen had resulted in the death of more than 150,000 people by bombs and bullets. Another 227,000 are estimated by the UN to have died from famine and lack of basic healthcare.

Though Saudi Arabia is now trying to end the conflict through a political process, some factions that are part of the legitimate government want to continue fighting Houthi rebels out of areas they control in Yemen. The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) is leading that trend of returning to arms. They see the present moment as a pretext for achieving their goal of southern Yemen’s secession — a move the Saudis oppose but the UAE is in favour of.

A delegation from the internationally recognised government in Yemen, comprising two officials from the STC, Amr Al-Bidh and Nabeel bin Lasem, stopped in London this week to meet Foreign Office diplomats and politicians, before going to Washington for talks with the State Department and members of Congress. They told The Independent in an interview that Houthi attacks will continue even with UK and US bombardment of their positions in Yemen: “Operations on the ground do not mean that the UK or the US have to do it themselves. It means empowering the Yemeni government so they can do this… We have forces which are capable and also experienced against the Houthis, so preparation for any operation that needs to take place should not take too long.”

It is not clear if the demands of the STC or the Saudi-backed government they are part of will be met. London and Washington will be cautious about involving themselves on the ground, especially if Riyadh maintains its position of dialogue with the Houthis to end the Yemeni disaster.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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