The Houthi Ace called Bab El Mandeb, US-proposed Task Force, and the Regional Dilemma

| Updated: 21 December, 2023 12:46 pm IST
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As Israel steps up its attacks on Hamas and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians have found an unusual ally in the Yemeni Houthi rebels. The poorest among the Arabs, Yemen has jumped into the crisis by flashing the biggest ace that it was holding all along – its control over the Bab el-Mandeb (Gateway of Tears) Strait choke point at the southern tip of the Red Sea. This is a narrow patch of sea, about 22-25 miles wide; with Yemen on one side and Africa’s Djibouti on the other.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels have begun carrying out attacks in response to Israel’s attack on Gaza, on all the cargo ships that ply through the Red Sea. This is a crucial escalation; the Red Sea is one of the densest shipping lanes in the world – acting as a connector between Europe and Asia. It accounts for 12% of the world trade and 30% of the global containers, which ply regularly between continents. That aside, 7-10% of global oil and 8% of LNG are transported through this route.

The narrow width of the Strait is an advantage to the Yemeni rebels because of the ease of access. They had initially tried firing cruise missiles at Israel. That was a failure; some of these were intercepted by the USA, Saudi Arabia, and some by Israel, while most of the missiles didn’t have the range. But the Red Sea is well within their range, and by their gesture, they intend to make full use of it. As a result, they have launched about 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks against 10 commercial vessels so far, according to the US-DOD.

At least three of the biggest shipping giants – MSC, Maersk, and CMA CGM – have stopped their operations and have rerouted their ships. BP has also followed suit. While this would not mean an economic meltdown, this would mean a price rise. Most ships are now diverted to the old Cape of Good Hope route. That is an additional few thousand miles and extra journey time; naturally, most related costs would be expected to go up. Insurance risk premiums are on the rise; shipping costs are on the rise; and the cost of maritime fuel is on the rise.

As far as India is concerned, Indian exports to Europe are bound to be affected. According to Indian merchandise exporters, the freight rates could go up by as much as 25-30%! Coming at a time when exports have slowed down already, this could mean bad news for the Indian export industry. That aside, there is a portion of Indian oil and gas imports – that comes from Africa – which use the Red Sea corridor. A rerouting of the containers would push up costs. The same logic applies for Europe too, and along a much larger scale. This kind of disruption in shipping would further damage the Ukraine-damaged European economy. Europe dreads it is about to be exposed once again – after the Nord Stream sabotage – to the perils of not having an independent foreign policy; for being an opinion-less American vassal.

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Though a section of Indian exporters and importers is hopeful that the US-announced international coalition to monitor the Red Sea might keep things under control, the picture might not be so optimistic after all. The Houthis are using Iranian-made Shaheed drones – 20,000 USD a piece. While the Aster 15 SAM fired by the French frigate to counter it cost more than 1 million Euro a piece. To top it up, these drones are difficult to spot, and if they hit a commercial vessel, while they wouldn’t destroy the ship, the partial damage that they would cause could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is unsustainable economics – the USSR discovered it the hard way in Afghanistan, as did the US a few decades later.

While the immediate idea, as expressed by a few of the international experts, is that this cost can be shared within the coalition of partners that are forming this task force, the main reason behind the creation of this coalition could be something else. There is already something called the Joint Task Force CTF 153 – that combs and patrols the Red Sea area – that was formed a few years ago. This is much along the lines of CTF 150 (Arabian Sea), CTF 151 (Gulf of Aden), or CTF 152 (Persian Gulf). Though this coalition – 153 – can probably handle the kind of threat that the Houthis presently pose, interestingly, it doesn’t have Israel as a member.

Thus, a few Middle East watchers think, is the necessity of a new task force – a coalition with Israel as a member; an attempt by the USA to force Israel into the maritime dynamics of the Middle East with Egypt, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, to provide a naval bulwark against Iran. There would of course be the active backup of the G7 navies. This kind of militarisation could be an American response to not only Iran but also to China, by way of cementing a US maritime hard-power over the routes of West Asia.

This is not without its share of challenges. Like the EU or India, KSA or UAE have genuine concerns. With the proposal of this task force, different think tanks in the US have begun providing opinions on how the KSA (and UAE too) needs to relook into the region. These include delaying the peace agreement with Sanaa, targeting drone and missile launch sites within Yemen, reclassifying Ansarallah as a terrorist organisation, imposing sanctions, and so on.

We can understand that the USA is trying to utilise this window to forcibly insert itself back into the Middle East, this time with Israel as a permanent partner with some say in maritime affairs. Understandable, considering that there is this proposal of the Ben Gurion channel, as Suez’s regional competitor. But the issue with this kind of random US opportunistic behaviour is age-old: they spell disaster for the regional allies. One needs to look at the EU post the Russian SMO in Ukraine.

Uncle Sam as a failing superpower has descended to a level where it has stopped bothering about optics. We saw it was willing to and did sacrifice the EU in the battlefields of Ukraine. As far as this proposed task force and renewed push on the GCC states to relaunch their war on Yemen is concerned, the Houthis have enough firepower to keep the Red Sea closed for years as they keep hiding in the rugged Yemeni landscape. That could affect not just the region, but entire Eurasian and African trade and commerce. There is also a near-certain probability of this plan mutating along multiple directions when it comes to life – as they all do.

What would be their impact? No one knows. But the one thing most of us know is that the fallouts could singe the entire Eastern Hemisphere, as Uncle Sam continues to enjoy the geographic insulation.

Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.

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