Houthi rebel Red Sea attacks and the threat of escalation and supply chain chaos are a major headache – and not just for the west

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US and UK warships have repelled a mass drone attack launched by Yemeni Houthis rebels at commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The incident, which reportedly involved a barrage of 20 rockets, drones and cruise missiles, was the largest concerted attack to be launched by the Iran-backed rebels. The UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps, called the attacks “unacceptable” and said that the consequences for the Houthis will be “severe”.

The UN security council will consider a resolution proposed by the US that condemns the Houthi attacks and demands they cease immediately.

The US has assembled a multinational naval task force to respond to the threat to Red Sea shipping. But, so far, these efforts have had limited effects and – in an increasingly volatile Middle East – options are running out.

Operation Prosperity Guardian, as the task force is called, has not yet managed to deter Houthis nor to sufficiently limit the number of attacks to restore confidence in the Red Sea route within the shipping sector. The rebels have not hesitated to innovate and diversify their attack methods to continue putting pressure on trading nations. For instance, in addition to aerial drones and missiles they have recently used maritime drones.

Asymmetrical threat

The threat posed by the Houthis is a classic case of asymmetrical warfare. With limited means, they have enough leverage to disrupt the global economy. Freedom of navigation and the stability of global maritime supply chains are crucial for liberal economies that are highly dependent on the free flow of goods at sea.

This is in no way limited to western nations. The Red Sea accounts for about 15% of global sea traffic. Even landlocked countries and those located far away from the Red Sea depend on distant maritime supply chains for their imports and exports.

This is why Houthi attacks have a disproportionate impact. The rising insurance premiums and the costs of rerouting ships via the Cape of Good Hope will slowly but steadily trickle down to businesses and consumers all over the world. This shift might have enduring long-term impacts on the global economy.

To counter such an asymmetric threat, defending commercial shipping rather than preventing and deterring attacks is not proving efficient. The naval response, meanwhile, is costly for participating nations. Given the cost of surface-to-air missiles used by western navies to destroy much cheaper Houthi drones, the cost-benefit ratio is very negative.

But deterring Houthi attacks is equally arduous because politically motivated combatants are willing to engage in deadly combat and are not afraid of military or political escalation in the region.

No good option on the table

Recent efforts by the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, have been directed at containing the war in Gaza and preventing it to spread to the whole region. But the patience of the US, the UK and others is running out, and there is a growing consensus around the need to strike Houthi positions on land.

The UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, acknowledged that these attacks “may have an impact”. He said the rebels have been warned “that there will be consequences and we will not just sit back and accept that because it’s so vital for global trade”. This is no exaggeration.

His remarks followed a pledge from Shapps, that the UK “won’t hesitate to take further action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea”.

Depending on their political mandate, the rules of engagement of navies operating in the Red Sea can be adapted, for instance, to include the targeting of hostile naval assets at sea or even ashore. But there is a big difference between shooting down incoming missiles or destroying small vessels that target civilian traffic at sea and striking Houthi positions on land. In the current geopolitical context, this is a decision to take with due consideration.

Indeed, airstrikes entail further risks of regional escalation, for instance, drawing other countries in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, into the conflict. Houthis and their backers might even be content for the war in Gaza to further escalate. Elsewhere, Putin’s Russia will also benefit from any scenario in which western attention and resources would be drawn away from Ukraine.

Yet if the Houthi threat is not dealt with – and if commercial shipping must divert from the Red Sea for a prolonged period – then the cumulative impacts on the global economy will be detrimental to most nations, in the west and beyond.

Interestingly, instability in the Red Sea is neither in China’s interest nor in the interests of any other non-western large trading nations because their economies are strongly and undeniably dependent on the global maritime supply chain.

In Washington, London and other major capitals, finding the right balance between defence and coercion will be key to securing peace in the Middle East while protecting the global maritime supply chain. Time is running out for both.

Written by Basil Germond, Professor of International Security, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.