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Updated January 4th, 2024 at 21:58 IST

Global leaders warn of escalation over Houthi Attacks as Red Sea tensions reach breaking point

Recent incidents, including the sinking of Houthi boats by U.S. forces, escalate tensions in a crucial shipping lane.

Yuvraj Tyagi
Operation Prosperity Guardian
Operation Prosperity Guardian (Representational) | Image:U.S. Navy
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Leaders from the United States, along with 12 partner nations, have issued a stark warning to Houthi fighters, emphasizing the possibility of heightened military action if their attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea persist. The group, in a joint statement released by the White House on Wednesday, condemned the assaults as "illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing." 

The statement categorically asserted that the Houthi attacks against civilian vessels have "no lawful justification" and demanded an immediate cessation. The call for action comes on the heels of a recent incident where U.S. forces sank three Houthi boats in the Red Sea in response to an attack on a merchant ship. 

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"Immediate end to illegal attacks": A clear message to Houthis 

"Let our message now be clear: We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews," the statement declared. It further warned that the Houthi fighters would bear the responsibility of the consequences if they persist in threatening lives, the global economy, and the free flow of commerce in the region's critical waterways.

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A senior administration official revealed that, since November 19, Houthi fighters have targeted commercial ships in the Red Sea at least 23 times. The gravity of the situation escalated on December 30 when U.S. forces intercepted two anti-ship ballistic missiles aimed at a Singapore-flagged ship, an attack described as "unprecedented" in its use of munitions and technical sophistication. 

The Iranian-backed proxy of ‘Houthis’ in Yemen

The Houthi rebels, Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen, have been increasingly assertive, launching drone and missile attacks on Israeli and American targets. Originating as a Zaidi Shia movement, the Houthis began as a military rebellion against the Yemeni military in Northern Yemen, evolving into a significant player in the Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy war. 

Iran's informal partnership with the Houthis dates back to 2014, gaining momentum after the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. The Houthi objective extends beyond Yemen, aiming to govern the entire country while supporting external movements against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Their arsenal includes the Burkan-2H (Volcano-2H,) a mobile short-range ballistic missile.

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Houthi fighters in Sanaa, Yemen, on November 24, 2021. | Credit- AP

Analysts close to the Iranian government suggest that the Houthis, based in Yemen, are viewed as ideal proxies to widen the conflict with Israel. Their geographic position allows them to disrupt global shipping in the Red Sea while being strategically distant from Israel, making retaliatory strikes challenging. Unlike Hezbollah, the Houthi are not constrained by domestic political dynamics, making them a formidable and unpredictable force. 

The recent incident on December 31 is part of a broader wave of attacks on ships in one of the world's major shipping lanes. The Houthi's control over a significant part of Yemen has contributed to their ability to target vessels, particularly those perceived to be linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports. Analysts warn that this systematic effort by Iran and its proxies poses a significant threat to the U.S. and its allies, demanding a comprehensive response to safeguard maritime security in the region. 

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Published January 4th, 2024 at 21:58 IST

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