Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Houthi movement that rules northern Yemen announced Tuesday that it had again targeted a commercial vessel, the MSC United VIII, with a drone in the Red Sea. Sarea said that the vessel had refused to answer warnings by the Houthi navy three times. MSC Mediterranean said, according to Aljazeera, that no crew members were killed and the ship was continuing its voyage, carrying goods from King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia to Karachi in Pakistan.
About 10% of world trade goes through the Suez Canal on some 17,000 ships per year, which is more like 30% of world seaborne trade. About 12% of world energy supplies also traverse the Red Sea.
Houthi attacks on shipping appear to be indiscriminate, since a cargo traveling from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan is a little unlikely to include Israeli goods.
The Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sarea, said that the Houthis had also launched drones at Eilat and other areas of what he called occupied Palestine. He said that the actions were in defense of the Palestinian people. The Israeli air force has killed over 20,000 Palestinians with indiscriminate aerial bombardment and destroyed much of the housing stock and other civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip in revenge for the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that left over a thousand people dead.
Aljazeera said that yet another vessel was struck off the Yemeni port of Hodeida earlier on Tuesday but provided no details.
Aljazeera reports that dozens of cargo ships have been stranded at the port of Djibouti for days and want to find a way to get word to the Houthis that they are not carrying Israeli goods.
The longer the Israeli assault on Gaza goes on, the more likely it is that the US will get pulled into a war on Sanaa. President Biden just hit an Iraqi Shiite militia in reprisal for attacks on US troops, angering Baghdad. Inasmuch as Iran is supplying and encouraging the Iraqi Shiite militias and the Houthis, another question is how long this proxy tit-for-tat can be contained and whether it will spiral into a larger US-Iran confrontation. One way to avoid this scenario is for President Biden to read the riot act to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and stop the madness.
As noted, the United States had announced a multi-nation effort to patrol the Red Sea and deter such Houthi drone attacks. No regional country but Bahrain agreed to join it publicly, however, likely because Arab governments do not want to be seen to be defending Israeli interests at a time when Israel is inflicting a genocide on the Palestinians. Secretary of Defense Austin Lloyd named as members Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. In fact, however, France said only that it would operate as usual in the Red Sea and would remain under French command. Spain declined to join the ad hoc mission, saying it would only participate in full NATO initiatives. The center-left government of Pedro Sánchez has been scathing about Israel’s destruction of Gaza. Italy said it would send one frigate.
So actually there is no multi-national coalition, it is smoke and mirrors, and it is just the US and maybe Britain shooting down drones as far as I can tell.
MSC Mediterranean said it had reported the attack to the coalition naval protection force (i.e. to the US).
Brad Lendon at CNN reports that the Houthis had let 17 drones and missiles fly on Tuesday that were intercepted by weapons fired by “guided-missile destroyer USS Laboon and by F/A-18 fighter jets flying off the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower.” The anti-missile weapons used by the US, however, are $2 million a pop, and the US doesn’t have all that many of them in the arsenal, so if the Houthis go on firing drones, the US Navy could run out of deterrents, Lendon says.
It appears that the drones that hit the MSC United VIII evaded US anti-missile efforts.
Denmark’s Maersk, a major container ship corp., had been going around Africa but says it will gradually resume using the Red Sea. But will it? It isn’t clear whether its officials are just trying to talk down spiking insurance and other costs.
Yemen is divided into three political regions at the moment, with the Houthis in the north, the internationally recognized government in the middle, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council along the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden littoral. Although it is internationally recognized, the government of President Rashad al-Alimi doesn’t actually control much of the country.
Alimi’s Information Minister, Muammar al-Eryani, warned that the Houthi tactics could backfire on Yemen (h/t BBC Monitoring). He pointed out that North Yemen depends on the Hodeida Port on the Red Sea for the importation of 80% of the country’s food, so you don’t actually want ships avoiding that route or charging more for carriage. Although, let’s face it, it isn’t the big international container ships that call at Hodeida.
Al-Eryani also questioned the value of idling Eilat Port in Israel, as the Houthis claim to have done. He pointed out that only 5% of goods imported by sea into Israel come in via Eilat.
It also isn’t very likely that the Houthi drones are actually hitting Eilat, despite what Sarea said.