Staff Writer Sam Bryan dissects the UK and US joint decision to use strike action against Houthi rebels in response to attacks in the Red Sea.
More drama has unfolded in the Middle East as a set of combined US and UK air strikes hit 28 locations and over 60 targets in Houthi controlled Yemen as a response to a set of missile and drone attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea. F-18 Super Hornets flying from the USS Eisenhower, Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Florida Submarine and four British Typhoon FGR-4 bombers unleashed over 100 precision guided missiles on carefully chosen targets in the most extensive air raid since 2003. Targets included storage and launch sites for Houthi drones and missiles, anti-aircraft sites and radar facilities, few ground casualties were reported and no attackers were lost.
Attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea have increased by 500% between November-December and 20% of container ships have diverted around the Cape of Good Hope in response. Oil prices have already risen by 1% as tankers have diverted course away from the red sea in anticipation of US and UK strikes and the global trade is expected to shrink 1.3% if the war on shipping continues. More trade disruption could cause global price rises for a range of goods, akin to when the Ever Given got stuck in 2021, and could significantly impact international relations. A second strike against the Al-Dailami airbase was conducted on the 13th of January at 12:45 AM GMT in an attack “Designed to degrade the Houthis’ ability to attack maritime vessels, including commercial vessels” according to US Central Command.
The strikes were supported by Western Allies including Australia, the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain via limited logistical and intelligence aid, however Italy and France declined to be involved – a curious decision which may lead to a divide between EU countries. The rebel group is backed by Iran and openly supports Hamas regarding the current crisis in Gaza, leading to some speculation around the Iranian aims of destabilisation around the region. The Defence secretary, Grant Shapps, urged Iran to ‘cease and desist’, citing a lack of world patience for Tehran’s destabilising activities, he stated:
Similarly, defence professor Michel Clark has called the claim that the aims of shipping attacks are to exert pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza a “fraudulent cover story” for an opportunity to further the cause of Tehran and Sanaa (Yemen’s capital).
While the strikes appear devastating from the outside, the Iranian backed group states the attacks will have no significant impact on their ability to perform raids on the Red Sea, putting into question the effectiveness of violence as a method of subduing disruption, especially with such a low casualty rate of 5 deaths. Houthis are no strangers to combat, being previously subject to years of Saudi Air Force strikes, and will not go down without a fight. Yemen (one of the poorest countries in the world) is an already war-torn area from the Houthi struggle for power against the UN-recognised government backed by the Saudi-led coalition. The civilian population faces famine, mines and a string of human rights violations on both sides. Experts have warned that military action will not end the groups resolve as a spokesman for the Yemeni Armed forces in the Houthi-controlled north stated the bombardment “will not go unanswered and unpunished”.
The strategy here is interesting, US president Joe Biden has made it clear he does not want a wider war with Iran, shown by the use of long range missiles as a less risky/ costly option during an election year. Washington has further calculated Tehran cannot afford a wider anti-Israeli war in the region however it is prepared to push buttons and press the “red line” of international freedom of navigation around the red sea. This renders the attacks at best a deterrent to protect shipping, as displayed by the tit-for-tat nature of the exchange, however the ability to further escalate violence is a real possibility. As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak put it, the strikes are “limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence”. The Houthis have made their, unsurprising, intent to seek revenge for the strike very clear, attacking a supposed British tanker in response which turned out to be one of Russia’s “ghost fleet” breaking oil sanctions. Escalation is an unfavourable option as the coalition has stressed the importance of the attack as a response to shipping threats and not an involvement in the Israel conflict against Hamas.
For now however, the future of the Red Sea remains unclear as the next move is in the hands of the Houthis. Their choice to either continue to attack shipping or to yield to military action will determine the security of global trade and their position in Yemen. It appears, unfortunately, the group has set its sight on doubling down on shipping attacks, placing the region in a dangerous position which could boil over into wider conflict in a time of extreme global instability. Certain leaders across the world may be craving global chaos to further their own political agendas, however this leaves populations vulnerable to violence and displacement on an unprecedented scale.