What recent Houthi moves in Red Sea mean for Israel

Houthi assaults against US and UAE vessels should indicate to Israel that control of Red Sea waters might be at stake.

al-monitor A Houthi follower carries a mock missile as he shouts slogans during a demonstration against the United Nations in Sanaa, Yemen, July 5, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi.

İşlenmiş konular

red sea, maritime economic zone, iranian influence in yemen, irgc, houthi rebels, eritrea, bab el-mandeb strait

Kas 7, 2016

In October, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired three times at vessels near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. These incidents are evolving into a strategic threat against Israel and other countries on the strait’s shores. This new situation, which could impact the local and regional economy, will require regional cooperation in order to maintain safe passage through the strait and safeguard maritime commerce.

The first incident took place Oct. 1, when a missile fired by the Houthi rebels in Yemen struck a United Arab Emirates vessel, causing severe damage. The missile was fired from the vicinity of the Red Sea port city of Mokha, slightly to the north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The location of the incident and the type of missile fired are of utmost importance. The Houthis said that the anti-ship missile was a Chinese-made C-802. This is the same kind of missile fired by Hezbollah at the Israeli navy’s Ahi-Hanit vessel in Lebanese waters in July 2006. The missile caused grave damage and killed several crew members. It’s safe to assume that this time, too, the missile made its way from China to Iran and from Iran to the Houthi rebels backed and trained by the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

On Oct. 9, two cruise missiles were fired from the same area, north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, at the US destroyer Mason. The ship’s countermeasures were activated, and the missiles failed to strike. On Oct. 12, the Mason was once again targeted in the same fashion, at the same place.

Even if it turns out that it was not a C-802 missile that hit the UAE vessel and was twice launched against an American destroyer, the Houthis’ very boasting about the firing indicates the rebels are supported by the IRGC. But the strategic significance of these attacks lies in their location. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, some 12 nautical miles in width, is a vital passage between the Indian Ocean and southeast Asia and the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Closure of the Strait of Hormuz only cuts off the Gulf states, including Iran, from international shipping lanes. However, the closure of Bab el-Mandeb would be a far more serious blow to nearby states — Egypt, Jordan and Israel — and to the global economy.

For now, the series of Houthi missile launches will not block the strait, but it does illustrate the operational feasibility of such a move if Iran continues to maintain its hold on Yemen’s shores, which form the eastern bank of the strait.

When the Houthi rebels fired a missile for the third time against an American vessel (failing again to hit it), the Americans retaliated with Tomahawk missiles, targeting and destroying Houthi radar stations — the same stations apparently used to locate and target the vessels.

It is difficult to tell at the moment if the American retaliation was just a one-time signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the US is not abandoning its allies or an indication of an escalation in American policy against Iranian proxies.

In light of these developments, all the states bordering the Red Sea that are susceptible to growing Iranian activity off their shores must first and foremost tighten their military cooperation.

The events also shine a light on a forgotten state that is actually in the eye of the storm — Eritrea. The damaged Emirates boat was taken for repairs to the Eritrean port of Assab. This port serves as a logistical heartland for the Saudi-led coalition forces and is some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the Yemeni port of Mokha on the western flank of the strait. Although Eritrea is closely involved in the anti-Iranian campaign in Yemen, the West is keeping up its embargo and sanctions against this small African state. Only few people still believe the accusations that the half-Christian African state supports the Islamist al-Shabaab organization in neighboring Somalia, which triggered these sanctions, but the sanctions are in place as though nothing has happened since. European Union members, at least, should reinstate Eritrea into the family of nations, enable it to develop its economy and allow it to defend itself. The port of Assab and the adjacent air base were recently attacked from the sea by Houthi rebels. Given the emerging struggle for control of the Red Sea, the world must stop boycotting Eritrea.

Eritrea must also be mobilized for diplomatic and military efforts to block Iran in the Red Sea. Egypt, a key state in the Arab world that lies along the Red Sea coast and provides passage for all naval transportation to and from the Suez Canal, also has a vital role to play. Let’s not forget that Egypt has one of the region’s largest navies, which is constantly being upgraded. Israel, whose trade with Asia passes primarily through the threatened shipping lane, will also have to adopt special precautions and make clear the price to be paid for attacking ships headed for the Red Sea port of Eilat. Israel has the means to deal with threats on its freedom of navigation, even on that far-off front.

Thus, there is an opportunity and urgent need for regional cooperation from states that share concerns of Iranian subversive activities, in general, and in the Red Sea, in particular. The Houthi rebels would not have attacked the UAE vessel nor would they have bragged about it without a green light from Iran. And herein lies the additional strategic importance of this event: Iran is defying the world and using its proxies to reshape the region and even areas beyond.

Lebanon and Iraq are not the only countries that serve as bases for military deployment by Iran and its surrogates. Under the mantle of legitimacy granted by the West in the nuclear agreement, Iran is now cementing its hold on the most strategically important point in the Red Sea. Kurdistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan could be next in line for Iranian expansion, given the weakness of the West.

Even if the next US administration preserves the nuclear agreement, the United States cannot remain indifferent to the new threat posed by Iran to the freedom of navigation between Asia and the West. Let’s hope that the role the United States assumes in this struggle will be consistent and leading, rather than transitory and marginal.

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