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US-led strikes may not deter Houthis from disrupting Red Sea trade

Washington may have underestimated the resilience of the Houthis, who successfully resisted Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, for more than eight years, and forced Riyadh to a ceasefire 

US-led strikes may not deter Houthis from disrupting Red Sea trade
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

The grim toll of the genocidal war against Palestinians in Gaza started by Israel in retaliation to raids conducted by Hamas and others on 7 October 2023 has crossed 30,000 in three months, including the 7,000-odd human beings under the rubble. South Africa has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of carrying out genocide of Gazans, a charge Tel Aviv denies.  

Meanwhile, global seaborne trade faces disruptions as the Houthi rebels, controlling a significant part of Yemen with a population of 20 million, target ships ‘linked’ to Israel crossing the narrow, 30-km-wide, Bab-el-Mandeb strait at the entrance to the Red Sea.

Given that ships going to Europe from Asia must navigate through the Red Sea to enter the Suez Canal, any disturbance in the strait reduces traffic through the canal. 

The Houthis announced their decision to target ships ‘linked’ to Israel on 14 November, with the first attack on Galaxy World, partly owned by Israeli national Abrahan Ungar, occurring on 19 November. The ship was boarded by gunmen who descended on the deck from a helicopter and escorted it to the Yemeni port of Hodeida, where it remains. 

Subsequent attacks, not always on Israel-linked ships, prompted Washington to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ to use force against the Houthis.

The response from other powers was lukewarm, partly due to Biden’s ‘unwavering’ support for Israel. The other reason was concerns about unity of command as many of those approached by the US did not want to deploy their navies under the Pentagon’s command. If Israel attacks Iran and the US military goes to Israel’s support, many powers do not want to get drawn into that war. 

Finally, on 18 December, Washington announced with much fanfare the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), a rather curious name for rendering naval protection to commercial ships. The OPG partners included the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. Later it became clear that some nations, like Italy, Spain, and France, did not contribute forces but were willing to provide protection to their respective commercial vessels.

The only Arab country that joined the OPG is Bahrain, which houses the US 5th Fleet. Even Egypt, heavily affected by reduced Suez Canal traffic, chose not to participate. 

The OPG, however, did not deter the Houthis, who continued to attack the ships. The US and the UK issued a stiff warning to the Yemeni group, which they predictably ignored.

On 9 January, the Houthis attacked US cargo ships in the Red Sea with drones and missiles. The next day, a US-led joint strike targeted Yemen by sea and air, hitting over 72 locations with more than 100 precision-guided munitions. The Houthis remained undeterred, declaring their commitment to resist despite casualties among Yemenis.

President Joe Biden vowed that he would order more strikes if necessary. The Houthis did attack, and the US responded with another strike.

The key question here is: Has Washington underestimated the determination and resilience of the Houthis who successfully resisted Saudi Arabia, supported by the US, for more than eight years, and compelled Riyad to agree to a ceasefire? 

Early on, the Houthis cited solidarity with Palestinians as the reason for targeting ships ‘linked’ with Israel. They have now invoked the 1948 Convention to Prevent and Punish Genocide to argue that they have an obligation to act against Israel. 

While it is rather hazardous to predict what might happen, it is reasonably certain that the Houthis will not stop and even occasional attacks by them will scare away ships. By now, the number of ships entering the Red Sea daily has gone down from 55 to 28 as of the first week of January.

Oil prices (Brent crude) shot up by 4% to $80 a barrel, though it came down later. Major companies such as British Petroleum and Maersk have started re-routing cargo to avoid the Red Sea. Such re-routing through the Cape of Good Hope adds 6,000 km and 10 days to the journey.  If disruptions persist, Western retail chains may experience shortages and inflation.

The disruption in trade through the Red Sea has also affected India. New Delhi-based think tank RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries) has estimated that India’s exports might come down by $30 billion in 2023-24. 

It all depends on how long Israel continues its bombing of Gaza, refuses a ceasefire, and the Houthis continue to disrupt the shipping lanes. As of now, there is no telling when it will all stop. 

The Indian Navy has taken preventive measures, deploying guided missile destroyers such as INS Chennai which recently foiled an act of piracy. 

It is, however, not practical for commercial shipping to be escorted by the navy. If Israel chooses to engage militarily with Hezbollah in a serious way, to provoke Iran, the disruption to the sea borne trade can last till a ceasefire comes into force.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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