Could Houthi attacks on ships off the Yemen coast continue even after a Gaza ceasefire?

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The MV Merlin Luande is one of the many cargo ships that have suffered damage in Houthi attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. (AFP)
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Updated 27 February 2024

Could Houthi attacks on ships off the Yemen coast continue even after a Gaza ceasefire?

  • Militia says it is acting in solidarity with Palestinians, but it appears to be profiting in other ways
  • Security experts say current Western military response may be playing into the hands of Houthis

LONDON: The campaign of attacks by Yemen’s Houthi fighters on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden continues, despite renewed US and UK strikes on their positions, leading to fears about the long-term security of these strategically important waterways.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia as it appears to be gaining strength, in terms of weaponry and fighters, and confidence in its ability to cause global trade disruptions.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week, Rashad Al-Alimi, chair of the Presidential Leadership Council of the UN-backed Yemeni government, said the Houthis had irrevocably altered the region’s geopolitical contours.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)

“The Red Sea will continue to be a source of tension, ready to explode at any political turn, as long as the Houthis control coastal regions,” he added.

“To end Houthi piracy, we must address its origin and source. This can only be accomplished by restoring state institutions, ending the coup, and applying maximum pressure on Iran.”

The Houthi militia is part of the “axis of resistance,” a loose network of Iran-backed proxy militias throughout the region that includes the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and several Shiite groups in Iraq.

When the Houthis began attacking commercial shipping in November, they claimed they were only targeting vessels with links to Israel in an attempt to pressure the Israeli government to end its military operation against Hamas in Gaza.

However, Houthi drones, missiles and acts of piracy have been launched against several ships with no ties to Israel. In fact, in recent weeks Yemeni ships, and even vessels belonging to Houthi-allied Iran, have come under attack.

According to a tally by the Associated Press news agency, the Houthis have carried out at least 57 attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since Nov. 19. US Central Command has even identified the use of a Houthi-operated submarine drone.

In response to these attacks, many of the world’s biggest freight companies have redirected their vessels from the Suez Canal route to the Mediterranean, thereby avoiding the Red Sea, and instead are using much longer and more expensive routes via the Cape of Good Hope.

The Houthis have carried out at least 57 attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since Nov. 19. (AFP)

Simon Evenett, founder of nonprofit organization the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade, said that while shipping costs have risen, they are still “well below” their pandemic-era peaks. He also noted that some freight companies had simply continued to traverse the waterways of the Red Sea despite the risk of attack.

“The New York Fed’s index of Global Supply Chain Pressure has barely moved,” Evenett told Arab News. “Important as it is, just 11 percent of global trade flows through the Red Sea. This isn’t enough to disrupt the world economy.

“What’s harder to assess is whether yet more upheaval in trade routes further undermines policymakers’ and corporate trust in long-distance sourcing. A further nudge towards national and regional sourcing can be expected.”

To prevent disruption to trade, protect mariners and uphold the right to freedom of navigation, the US-led patrol mission, Operation Prosperity Guardian, was established in December. When the Houthi attacks persisted, the US and UK launched strikes against militia targets in Yemen.

In a joint statement on Feb. 24, the US and the UK said their military forces struck 18 Houthi sites across eight locations in Yemen, including underground weapons and missile storage facilities, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter.

The Houthi militia is part of the “axis of resistance,” a loose network of Iran-backed proxy militias throughout the region. (AFP)

The operation was the fourth time the US and UK had carried out joint attacks against the Houthis since Jan. 12. The US has also carried out almost daily operations against Houthi targets, including incoming missiles, rockets and drones targeting vessels.

These Western strikes have done little to stem the tide of attacks, however. On Feb. 19, the Houthis mounted one of their most damaging assaults yet, on the Belize-flagged Rubymar, carrying cargo from the UAE to Bulgaria, forcing its crew to abandon ship.

Indeed, far from curtailing the activities of the Houthis, their popularity in Yemen appears to have grown since the shipping attacks began, with thousands of recruits reportedly joining their ranks.

If its intent was to force a swift Houthi climbdown, the Western military response has so far borne little fruit. The Houthis seem only too keen to up the ante, with their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi stating “we will also attack with submarine weapons.”

However, in a message posted recently on social media platform X, the militia said: “What the world is impatiently waiting for is not the militarization of the Red Sea, but rather an urgent and comprehensive declaration of ceasefire in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons that are clear to anyone.

“There is no danger to international or European navigation so long as there are no aggressive operations, and thus, there is no need to militarize the Red Sea.”

In a joint statement on Feb. 24, the US and the UK said their military forces struck 18 Houthi sites across eight locations in Yemen. (Getty Images/AFP)

Not everyone is convinced that securing a ceasefire in Gaza will end the Houthi attacks on shipping. Like Al-Alimi, those with such concerns want the international community to take the worst-case scenario more seriously and take preventive action now.

Raiman Al-Hamdani, a researcher at social enterprise organization Ark, agreed that attacks are likely to continue after the war, but in the form of piracy in a “push to monetize their presence” in the seas off the coast of Yemen.

“This could mean attacking commercial vessels in the future, albeit not to the extent that we are seeing today,” he told Arab News, adding that the Houthis could begin demanding taxes from vessels passing through Bab Al-Mandab Strait in return for not striking them.

Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at Chatham House, likewise believes the Houthis have hit upon an opportunity to raise revenues from passing vessels.

“They will, of course, try to make deals and there are already countries that are looking for waivers,” Al-Muslimi told Arab News.

“But there are several problems with this, one of which is that were they to escalate the crisis in the Red Sea, it would not be safe for anyone.

“As you can see, they have already attacked ships linked to Yemen and vessels belonging to their own ally, Iran, so any escalation of this will not be a clean battle.”

Some countries, including regional states, have called for a more measured response to the attacks, rather than military action that might inflame tensions in the region.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry recently expressed “deep concern over the escalation of military operations in the Red Sea and the airstrikes that were directed at a number of sites in Yemen.” It called for a “united international and regional effort to reduce tension and instability in the region, including navigation security.”

US Central Command has identified the use of a Houthi-operated submarine drone. (AFP)

It added: “The dangerous and escalating developments taking place are a clear indication of what we’ve repeatedly warned against regarding the dangers of expanding the conflict in the region as a result of the continued Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip.”

Security experts have also said the military response might prove counterproductive, with concerns that it could play into the hands of the Houthis, who have sought to present themselves as defenders of Gaza who are standing up to Israel and its Western allies.

Al-Hamdani believes the attacks on shipping serve several purposes for the Houthis: to help recruit new followers, distract from domestic problems, burnish support among the population, and to strengthen the militia’s negotiating position in the ongoing Yemen peace process.

Al-Muslimi believes the Houthis have “already capitalized on it as much as they could politically,” suggesting the attacks will likely stop when the war in Gaza ends.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)

However, he said the regional calculus has changed as a result of the Houthi onslaught and the broader context in the region since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on southern Israel that sparked the conflict in Gaza, increasing the chances the Middle East could be plunged into a wider war.

“Nothing in the Middle East will be the same after Oct. 7, and this includes how the world views Yemen, how the world views the Red Sea,” said Al-Muslimi.

“That applies to everything and everywhere. That is how much of an influence it has had. That is how much it has spilled over.”

Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

Updated 17 sec ago

Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

PARIS: The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and Islamist Palestinian militants Hamas and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in 2011.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
“We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will,” said a former European envoy to Syria.
“Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway.”
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc’s 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict’s intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the United Nations.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
“Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it’s not sustainable for Cyprus and it’s not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn’t been sustainable for years,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc’s previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to “re-evaluate the situation” to find “more effective ways of handling the issue.”
“I don’t think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas,” said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
“Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone,” said a French diplomat.

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

Updated 45 min 37 sec ago

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

  • Crowds overrun some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend, leading to a two-day suspension of aid distribution
  • At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million

WASHINGTON: A six-day-old US pier project in Gaza is starting to get more aid to Palestinians in need but conditions are challenging, US officials said Thursday. That reflects the larger problems bringing food and other supplies to starving people in the besieged territory.

The floating pier had a troubled launch, with crowds overrunning some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend. One man in the crowd was shot dead in still-unexplained circumstances. It led to a two-day suspension of aid distribution.
The US military worked with the UN and Israeli officials to select safer alternate routes for trucks coming from the pier, US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday.
As a result, the US pier on Wednesday accounted for 27 of the 70 total trucks of aid that the UN was able to round up from all land and sea crossings into Gaza for distribution to civilians, the United States said.
That’s a fraction of the 150 truckloads of food, emergency nutrition treatment and other supplies that US officials aim to bring in when the sea route is working at maximum capacity.
Plus, Gaza needs 600 trucks entering each day, according to the US Agency for International Development, to curb a famine that the heads of USAID and the UN World Food Program have said has begun in the north and to keep it from spreading south.

Only one of the 54 trucks that came from the pier Tuesday and Wednesday encountered any security issues on their way to aid warehouses and distribution points, US officials said. They called the issues “minor” but gave no details.
A deepening Israeli offensive in the southern city of Rafah has made it impossible for aid shipments to get through the crossing there, which is a key source for fuel and food coming into Gaza. Israel says it is bringing aid in through another border crossing, Kerem Shalom, but humanitarian organizations say Israeli military operations make it difficult for them to retrieve the aid there for distribution.
The Biden administration last week launched the $320 million floating pier for a new maritime aid route into Gaza as the seven-month-old Israel-Hamas war and Israeli restrictions on land crossings have severely limited food deliveries to 2.3 million Palestinians.
For all humanitarian efforts, “the risks are manifold,” Daniel Dieckhaus, USAID’s response director for Gaza, said at a briefing with Cooper. “This is an active conflict with deteriorating conditions.”
Dieckhaus rejected charges from some aid groups that the pier is diverting attention from what the US, UN and relief workers say is the essential need for Israel to allow full access to land crossings for humanitarian shipments.
For instance, Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official now leading Refugees International, tweeted that “the pier is humanitarian theater.”
“I would not call, within a couple of days, getting enough food and other supplies for tens of thousands of people for a month theater,” Dieckhaus said Thursday when asked about the criticism.
At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million.

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

Updated 24 May 2024

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

WASHINGTON: Three US troops suffered non-combat injuries in the effort to make a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza into a conduit for humanitarian aid, with one in critical condition at an Israeli hospital, US officials said on Thursday.

The injuries were the first for US forces during the latest operation to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation last week.

US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the deputy commander of US Central Command, told reporters that two of the troops had a sprained ankle and a minor back injury.

“Two were very minor, routine injuries. Those individuals returned to duty,” Cooper said.

A third service member, injured on a ship at sea, was medically evacuated to a hospital in Israel, he said. A US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the individual was in critical condition.

US lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks to positioning US troops off the coast of Gaza. Biden has said they will not step foot in the war-torn city itself.

The Pentagon has said it will prioritize the safety of US military personnel.

“We’re clear eyed and we continue to look at force protection all day, every day and as it stands now we assess the operations can continue,” Cooper said.

Social media images showed a US air defense system, known as the Counter Rockets, Artillery and Mortars (CRAM), firing into the sky while on the pier. US officials said troops were testing the system.

Daniel Dieckhaus of the US Agency for International Development said that since the pier opened last week, about 506 metric tons of aid had been handed off to humanitarian groups inside Gaza. About a third of that has not yet been distributed but would be soon, he said.

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

Updated 23 May 2024

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

GAZA STRIP: A senior official at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said it was under Israeli military siege for a fifth straight day on Thursday after soldiers stormed it the previous day.

“We are still under siege for the fifth day in a row,” said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

“Soldiers are present in the hospital’s courtyard and nearby houses,” he said, adding that there was “continuous gunfire and shelling” toward it.

Troops stormed the hospital building on Wednesday evening, he said.

“The hospital was stormed, and staff were forced to leave. I currently have only 13 staff, 11 patients, and two women accompanying wounded children,” Saleh said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media platform X that 140 staff, patients, and accompanying adults were inside the hospital when troops stormed it.

The WHO visited Al-Awda regularly in April to deliver medical supplies and fuel, but on Tuesday Ghebreyesus said snipers were targeting the building and artillery had hit the fifth floor.

On Tuesday, patients and staff were also evacuated from another hospital in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan, its director, Dr. Hossam Abu Safia, said at the time.

“These are the only two functional hospitals remaining in northern Gaza. Ensuring their ability to deliver health services is imperative,” Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Israeli troops have previously raided other medical facilities in Gaza, including Al-Shifa in Gaza City, the territory’s largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble after an operation in March, the WHO said.

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

Russian President Vladimir receives Bahrain's King Hamad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2024. (BNA)
Updated 23 May 2024

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

  • King meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin 

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad said his country was looking forward to improving its relations with Iran during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
The king added that there was no reason for Bahrain to postpone the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday.
The king and Putin discussed the war in Gaza, regional and international efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and the release of hostages and detainees. They also focused on providing humanitarian aid without obstacles to the territory’s civilian population.
They highlighted the importance of advancing the course of diplomatic action to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The leaders also said efforts to recognize the Palestinian state and accept it as a permanent member of the UN should be supported.
They also stressed the importance of the UN Security Council assuming its responsibilities toward resolving and ending global conflicts, and working to settle them in accordance with the rules of international law and the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
The king informed the Russian president of the outcomes of the Arab Summit held recently in Bahrain, adding that Arab countries appreciated Russia’s sympathy for just Arab causes.
The king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the convening of an international conference at the summit, which would take place under the auspices of the UN, to resolve the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution.
The king added that he hoped to host the conference and requested Russia’s support for it.