Red Sea Burning

As Houthis target commercial shipping relentlessly, the message to the US and Israel is clear

By Zeeshan Ahmad in The Express Tribune: “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.” It’s a simple cliché, repeated ad nauseum by smart alecks in American film and television. For how much Hollywood leans on it, you would imagine American policymakers to be more cautious. But Washington prefers another cliché – the lone ranger with a big iron on his hip (or an Uzi, if you prefer contemporary), who alone knows and stands for what’s right. Stand back, fall in line or face the music, consequences be damned.

Well, the United States was warned. Not least by the victims of Israel’s excessive brutalities. Nor only by the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ – Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi Ansar Allah, who the US views purely through its Iran filter. No, the US was warned by the entire world, save Israel and the United Kingdom, when it vetoed their resolution calling for ceasefire in Gaza.

Now the Red Sea burns and the world can deliver the cliché in chorus. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you!”

Over the past few weeks, the Houthi forces have launched at least a hundred attacks against 14 different commercial and merchant vessels passing through the Red Sea, reports quoting American officials have suggested. A Karachi-bound container ship was targeted just this week in a Houthi-claimed attack, although no casualties were luckily reported.

So risky has the channel become for commercial shipping that more than 350 vessels have diverted to other, more costly routes. In the face of relentless attacks and hijackings, Danish logistics giant AP Moller-Maersk, Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd and oil and gas ‘supermajor’ BP have all announced they will pause shipments through the Red Sea. Taiwan’s Evergreen Line went a step further while suspending navigation through the Red Sea route, announcing it would stop accepting Israeli cargo ‘until further notice’.

Widening hostilities

The latest attacks by Houthi forces, including the one this week on Karachi-bound vessel MSC United VIII, represent a widening of their response to Israel’s relentless offensive in Gaza, which just recently crossed the 90-day mark. While the group earlier claimed it was targeting ships bound for Israel, recent strikes seek to deny the crucial Red Sea shipping lane entirely.

Even so, the Yemeni forces framed its actions in terms of “continued support and solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

“The naval forces of the Yemeni Armed Forces carried out a targeting operation against the commercial ship, ‘MSC UNITED,’ with appropriate naval missiles,” Yahya Sare’e, a spokesperson for the Houthi forces, posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “The Yemeni Armed Forces affirm their continued support and solidarity with the Palestinian people in consistent with their religious, moral and humanitarian duty … [and] confirm the continuation of their operations in the Red and Arab Seas against Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine until the food and medicine enter to Gaza Strip,” he added, in subsequent posts. The group carried out drone attacks targeting the Israeli port city of Eilat the same day.

No takers for US response

Despite growing calls for ceasefire from all corners of the globe, Washington support for Israel’s war hasn’t wavered. Instead of addressing the root of the crisis, its response to the Red Sea disruption has been to canvas support for a multinational maritime patrol, titled Operation Prosperity Guardian.

So far, that attempt appears to be fizzling out. Although US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin confidently proclaimed last week more than 20 nations had joined the mission, some of Washington’s closest allies have pushed back against the effort. Meanwhile, nearly half of the rest have not yet acknowledged their participation.

The task force, overseen by the US Combined Maritime Forces, primarily consists of American warships, with the UK and Greece contributing a warship each. Nato members Spain, Italy and France have flat refused to hand over command of their naval vessels in the Red Sea to the US, while other Western allies, like Canada, the Netherlands and Norway, have committed only a handful of staff officers.

America’s Aukus partner Australia, announced it too would send only personnel, but no ships or plane. “We need to be really clear around our strategic focus and our strategic focus is our region,” the country’s deputy prime minister told Sky News this week.

The maritime alliance also seems to have been all but snubbed by Gulf nations. Bahrain, the only regional country named as part of Prosperity Guardian, has not acknowledged its role even though the mission was announced by Austin in Manama.

According to observers, the disinterest of US partners to commit themselves to its Red Sea operations reflect both a break from its stance on the conflict in Gaza – where more than 20,000 Palestinians have been reported killed – and regional security pressures.

A Reuters analysis noted that the European public is increasingly critical of Israel and wary of being drawn into a conflict. “European governments are very worried that part of their potential electorate will turn against them,” it quoted David Hernandez, a professor of international relations at the Complutense University of Madrid, as saying. The same appears to be doubly true in the case of Middle Eastern nations, where despite a muted response from leaders, there is enormous public anger against Israel.

Following the China-brokered rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia appears to have no interested in being dragged into new hostilities with Yemen’s Houthis. Instead, the Kingdom wants to conclude its eight-year war with its peninsular neighbour, experts say.

Like Australia, key Nato member Germany is preoccupied with its regional security environment. “Germany has not joined in [Operation Prosperity Guardian], to some criticism but with good reason,” security analyst Bruce Jones wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy. “There are mounting demands on Germany’s modest navy in Northern European waters, where the Russians are flexing their subsea muscles. Australia was asked to join but made the counterargument that its modest naval capacity is better deployed in the Western Pacific,” he pointed out. More here >

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