US military's Central Command shows what it is described as the vessel that carried Iranian-made missile components bound for Yemen's Houthi in the Arabian Sea. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Yemen’s Al Houthi militants and their Iranian backers are preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the US and allies around the Red Sea regardless of how the Israel-Hamas war plays out.

The Yemen-based group is shoring up military and defence capabilities to continue attacking ships around the vital waterway, according to several people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. Steps include fortifying mountain hideouts for more secure and effective missile launches and testing unmanned vessels above and below water, they said.

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Al Houthis started attacking Red Sea shipping in November, ostensibly as a means of pressuring Israel to end its war in Gaza against Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. At first, they said only vessels with ties to Israel would be targeted, though it wasn’t long before ships with only tenuous connections to the Jewish state were also hit.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said early on Monday that Yemen’s Houthis launched one anti-ship ballistic missile likely targeting the MV Torm Thor, but missed the US-flagged, owned and operated oil tanker, in the Gulf of Aden on February 24.

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The missile impacted the water causing no damage nor injuries, CENTCOM added in a post on X.

The assaults have helped push oil prices up more than 8 per cent this year, with Brent nearing $85 a barrel, and upended trade through the southern Red Sea. The waterway normally handles about 30 per cent of global container traffic and sees more then $1 trillion worth of goods pass through each year.

The US and UK have responded since mid-January with airstrikes against the Houthis’ military assets, including missile launchers, air-defence systems and radars. The Pentagon says the group’s capabilities have weakened as a result. A US-led maritime operation to patrol and secure the Red Sea started in December and was bolstered this week by a Greek-led European Union mission.

While Israel is stoking fears in the international community over plans to attack the Palestinian refugee haven of Rafah, the Houthis and Iran are seeking to extract Western concessions that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Hamas conflict, said Rashad Al Alimi, who heads Yemen’s internationally recognised government opposed by the Houthis. Sanctions relief for Iran and political recognition for the militant group may be among these demands, he suggested.

Image Credit:
The Red Sea has the Suez Canal at its northern end and the narrow Bab Al Mandeb Strait at the southern end, leading into the Gulf of Aden. It’s a busy waterway with ships traversing the Suez Canal to bring goods between Asia and Europe and beyond.
In fact, 40% of Asia-Europe trade normally goes through the area, including a huge amount of oil and diesel fuel for import-dependent Europe. So do food products like palm oil and grain and anything else brought over on container ships, which is most of the world’s manufactured products.
In all, about 30% of global container traffic and more than 1 million barrels of crude oil per day typically head through the Suez Canal, according to global freight booking platform Freightos Group.
Huge shipping container companies, including Maersk, are avoiding the Red Sea and sending their ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. That adds a week to two weeks to voyages and increases costs for for shipping, fuel and more.
At least 90% of the container ships that had been going through the Suez Canal are now rerouting around the tip of Africa, said Simon Heaney, senior manager of container research for Drewry, a maritime research consultancy.
The cost to ship a standard 40-foot container from China to northern Europe has jumped from $1,500 to $4,000, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany. But that is still far from the $14,000 seen during the pandemic.
The delays contributed to a 1.3% decline in world trade in December, reflecting goods stuck on ships rather than being offloaded in port.
Crude prices rose about 4% following the US-led airstrikes. International benchmark Brent traded at just over $80 per barrel Friday, still down from about $84 on the eve of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
“While this puts upwards pressure on global oil prices, it is unlikely to represent a serious energy supply shock for now,” Simone Tagliapietra, an energy analyst at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, tweeted.
That could change if the Hamas-Israel and Al Houthi conflicts escalate and lead to trouble at the Strait of Hormuz at the southern end of the Arabian Gulf, he said.
“That would have massive implications for global energy markets,” Tagliapietra said.
The US is leading a security initiative to protect ships in the Red Sea that includes United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. Al Houthis have no navy to impose a cordon, relying on harassing fire and only one helicopter-borne assault so far.
Friday’s strikes killed at least five Al Houthi troops and wounded six, the rebels said, without elaborating on what was targeted. It was unclear how extensive the damage from the US strikes were, though the Houthis said at least five sites, including airfields, had been attacked. -- Reuters

“This is a strategic dream for Iran,” Alimi said during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

The Houthis took control of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, in 2014 at the start of the country’s devastating civil war. They hold much of the north-west of Yemen, including the key port of Hodeida, and withstood a massive bombing campaign from a Saudi-led coalition that began a year later.

There’s been a tentative truce since 2022, but UN-mediated talks involving the Saudis are yet to result in a formal peace deal. Most Arab and Western countries don’t formally recognize the Houthis as a governing power.

The Houthis and Iranians have “exercised a certain leverage over international trade” and “have realized the power of this tool,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center think tank in Beirut, said in an interview. That means they won’t give up easily, she added.

UK exporters hit by Red Sea disruption
More than half of British exporters are suffering from disruption arising from attacks by Yemen's Houthi militants on shipping in the Red Sea, a survey showed Monday.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) business group revealed the main finding in a survey of more than 1,000 companies.
The BCC said in a statement that more than 55 percent of exporters stated that they have been impacted by Red Sea disruption.
Some 53 percent of manufacturers and business-to-consumer firms, like retailers, have also been affected.
"The main impacts cited by businesses are increased costs and delays," the BCC said.

Long-term objectives

In a speech last week, Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi suggested humiliating the US and driving its military forces out of the Middle East is a key motive. That’s also one of Tehran’s main long-term objectives.

“We are witnessing strategic failure when it comes to American influence and control in the region,” he said. The Houthis are people who “don’t submit to America.”

To this end the Houthis have over the past few weeks buttressed their positions in three mountainous areas, said the people, who shared this information with Bloomberg based on intelligence gathered mainly from individuals on the ground.

They’ve dug more trenches and tunnels in the mountains of the Hajjah governorate northwest of Sana’a, located at the Saudi border and overlooking the Red Sea, as well as around peaks inland, they said.

These remote and rugged locations are being used to hide stockpiles of missiles, while mountainous heights of over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) allow for the targeting of ships further out to sea, including in the Gulf of Aden and even the Arabian Sea, according to four people informed about the Houthis’ latest moves.

Yemen’s Alimi believes the only way to restore security to the Red Sea is for the West to get tougher with Iran and support anti-Houthi factions to oust them from Sanaa “- a goal that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates failed to achieve with their direct military involvement.

“Diplomacy and soft approaches do not work with Iran,” Alimi said in Munich.

Iranian help

The US has repeatedly said the Houthis, who were added to Washington’s list of terrorist organisations last month, would not have been able to carry out and sustain their attacks in the Red Sea without technical, military and intelligence support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose operatives are present in Yemen.

Hundreds of operatives and experts from the IRGC and allied militias are working with the Houthis on their Red Sea attacks, according to Saudi and Yemeni security sources, and some have been killed in the recent US and UK strikes.

Iran has denied any involvement in the shipping assaults but has praised the Houthis for acting in solidarity with Hamas.

President Joe Biden has signalled the US will keep striking the Houthis for as long as it takes to end their grip on Red Sea shipping.

The US has a duty to defend the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea but shouldn’t get into a wider conflict with the Houthis and Iran, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said at the Munich Security Conference.

“The US obviously has important interests in the Middle East but that does not mean every problem in the Middle East is a US problem,” he said.