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Red Sea attacks

What is the strategy behind the military actions of the US and UK?

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Sun, 25 Feb 24

The Houthis have attacked commercial vessels in the Red Sea. They claim to be expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Houthis are attempting to gain legitimacy in the Arab world. At the same time, they are trying to restore their eroding support within the country through acts of aggression like attacking ships. On average, 68 vessels pass through the Suez Canal daily. Twelve percent of the world's total commercial goods are transported through this route. Hence, the recent targeting of commercial vessels by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea over the past two months is not something the international community can overlook.

In light of this, the United States and the United Kingdom have decided to take military action in Yemen against the Houthis. This notion is the strongest. However, what strategy lies behind the military intervention by the United States and the United Kingdom? Through this, can the attacks on ships be stopped? From such questions arises the possibility of whether such strategies could help in quelling the spread of conflict in the broader Gaza region. Until now, the direct confrontations in Yemen's civil war have resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 people. This number may suffice as evidence of the brutality of the war. More than 227,000 Yemenis have died due to famine and lack of medical care caused by the war. The humanitarian crisis in the region is ongoing. The poverty situation is extremely dire. In areas controlled by the Houthis, government employees have not received any salaries for seven years. Under Houthi rule, ordinary Yemenis are not experiencing any improvement in their living conditions, to say the least. Another concern is that despite extensive damage caused by airstrikes, the Houthis continue to launch missile attacks.

If Western forces initiate airstrikes in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen as a retaliatory measure, the potential geopolitical risks could lead to dire consequences. What could be the outcome? In addition, this activity of the Houthis will be helpful for Iran, the main ally of the Houthis in the struggle for power in the Middle East. The United States and the United Kingdom launched a joint attack on Yemen, which will play a role in the implementation of these agendas of the Houthis. The military forces of the United States and the United Kingdom possess the capability to conduct airstrikes on Houthi military targets and destroy their drones and missiles. However, given the persistent nature of Houthi attacks, it remains uncertain whether the West can definitively neutralize their power.

China adheres to a policy of 'no' regarding any involvement, support, or conflict with the United States. Due to this fundamental policy, even if Iran-backed Houthis launch drone or missile attacks on ships in the Red Sea, China has decided not to take any action against them. In response to Israel's military actions against Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis are conducting attacks in the Red Sea. However, in these attacks, Chinese-flagged vessels are not directly targeted. Last month, a senior Houthi official announced that they will not attack any vessels that are not related to Israel. However, the attacks by the Houthis are impacting China's economic interests. Chinese-flagged vessels now have to refrain from transporting goods associated with Israel to maintain neutrality in the conflict. However, identifying the nationality of a ship is not always easy. Because of that, there is a chance that any ship related to China's interests will be attacked.

However, navigating around the Red Sea incurs significant expenses. The Red Sea is one of the most critical corridors in global commerce. If Chinese ships wish to travel to Europe, an alternative route around the Red Sea could be to sail through the Cape of Good Hope. The current route through the Suez Canal takes about 24 days to reach Europe, whereas taking the alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope would require approximately 30 days for Chinese ships. This increases the expenses significantly for shipping and trade. The longer route also increases the cost of imports, which could have a significant impact on China's inflation. If the price of imported fuel rises due to the longer journey, it could further strain China's already struggling economy.

Thus, even if the Houthis do not directly attack Chinese ships in the Red Sea, China's economic recovery efforts are hindered. Moreover, the situation could worsen if Iran becomes involved in the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the United States-led coalition. If that happens, the Hormuz Strait would be affected, and there could be threats to China's oil supply. So far, the warnings issued by the Houthis are not considered by China as either intermediate or final threats. Yes, it's true that Chinese officials have reached out to their Iranian counterparts to exert pressure on the Houthis.

However, despite China having some influence over Iran to a certain extent, Beijing has limited leverage to control Tehran's policies. Moreover, being a key patron does not necessarily mean that Iran can exert complete control over the Houthis. Regardless of the United States' stance, China's ability to rein in the Houthis through diplomatic means is limited on the international stage. Moreover, it doesn't seem likely that China will take extensive measures to intervene from a distance. As long as the strategists in China view the developments in the Middle East through the lens of China-U.S. relations, the region's instability will not necessarily be detrimental to China. According to Chinese experts, many people will be pleased to see the United States facing difficulties in supporting Israel. China understands that if the United States becomes embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East, then China stands to gain.

It is true that with the United States currently preoccupied with its responsibilities and challenges, China may not aggressively pursue Taiwan. However, the decline in the acceptability and leadership of the United States is enjoyable for China. The longer the United States remains engaged in supporting Israel, the more opportunities China will have to strengthen its relations with countries in the Middle East. And in terms of regional security in the Middle East, China can position itself as an alternative. In any situation, China will not join the United States' military coalition against the Houthis.

The situation is not solely due to China's policy of 'non-interference'. China's policy of maintaining balance between Israel and the Arab world, as well as between Sunni and Shia Muslims, also contributes to its stance. They are reluctant to engage in conflict, fearing damage to this delicate balance. However, the incident in the South China Sea involving the Houthi activity does indeed pose a threat to China's interests. So, what are the alternatives for China? However, one possible option is for China to escort their cargo ships through the waters of the Indian Ocean. China has been doing this since 2008 for ships traveling through the Aden Subsea. However, China is providing escorts for ships in the Aden Subsea based on the provisions of the United Nations Security Council. Since there are no such provisions in place for the waters of the South China Sea, China is reluctant to take similar actions in that area. Nevertheless, China has recently initiated such actions in the South China Sea. However, the most convenient and politically expedient path for China in the Middle East crisis is quite different. China blames the failure of the United States and Israel to achieve a "two-state solution" behind the turbulent situation in the Middle East after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. They say that a two-state solution is a prerequisite for any viable solution to the ongoing crisis. China recognizes that achieving a two-state solution for Palestine-Israel isn't likely to happen quickly. This is because it fundamentally alters Israel's security and the stability of the entire Middle East. However, for China, the issue of a two-state resolution isn't the primary concern; rather, it's about undermining the power of the United States. It's important to remember that Saudi Arabia has conducted numerous airstrikes in Yemen over an extended period of time as part of the ongoing civil war. Despite these airstrikes, they haven't been successful in significantly weakening the Houthi forces. Joint military operations by the United States and the United Kingdom have also been limited in their effectiveness due to the constrained scope of their engagement. The evidence suggests that these efforts have not been as impactful as hoped.

The weapons and armaments necessary to conduct airstrikes are potentially obtainable by the Houthis from Iran through various means. Therefore, from a military perspective, the airstrikes conducted by the United States and the United Kingdom may not be the most effective approach to achieve their stated objectives as the Houthi forces can still procure weaponry despite such actions.

In Yemen, people perceive the airstrikes by the United States and the United Kingdom as a double standard. However, regarding the movement of ships in the South China Sea, the support provided by the United States to Israel doesn't pose any problem as it doesn't create any hindrance to maritime navigation. However, due to the military and economic assistance provided by the United States to Israel, more than 25,000 people have been killed in Gaza so far.

Political leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom are now claiming that their reason for taking action against the Houthis is to provide security to non-military personnel on civilian vessels in the Red Sea. This is their hypocrisy at its highest level. In Palestine, they have been supporting the deliberate killing of thousands of unarmed civilians, including a significant number of women and children. Their statements in support of protecting non-military personnel are not reflected in their actions. The resentment among the people of the Middle East is real and growing. The efforts by the Houthis to gain legitimacy in the Arab world have garnered increasing support. The aggression in Gaza, attacks in Yemen, ongoing conflict along the borders of Israel, and recent attacks in Lebanon orchestrated by groups like Hamas or Hezbollah are not just fueling regional tensions, but also creating new concerns about terrorism outside the Middle East.

It is true that the United States, the United Kingdom, and other naval powers are responsible for providing security for ships in the South China Sea. They are also responsible for stopping Houthi missiles and drones. It is true that the Houthi missile defenses will be bypassed today or tomorrow. And in the process, innocent lives are at risk. However, the joint airstrikes initiated by the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that they are not solely guided by strategic policies; there is a necessity to take action, and they are operating under this policy.

The Houthis will use the US-UK airstrikes to strengthen their position inside the country and to gain their legitimacy in the Middle East. This means that instead of merely addressing symptoms, efforts should focus on resolving the underlying causes of the conflict. Primarily, there needs to be a departure from the dual-sided policies of the West regarding the Israel-Palestine issue. Such a shift may lead to the cessation of tensions.

Author: Researcher and Columnist.

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