Over 1,000 miles between Yemen and the Gaza Strip, yet what happened last Sunday at the southern end of the Red Sea could aggravate the Israel-Hamas conflict. Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen attacked three commercial ships in international waters four times, according to US Central Command. The attackers used explosive drones and anti-ship ballistic missiles.
The USS Carney, a guided missile warship, shot down three drones. Others strike their targets, causing damage but no injuries.
The attacks' location matters. They occurred close north of the Bab El Mandeb Strait, a 20-mile-wide strait that separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and passes 17,000 ships and 10% of global trade annually. Any ship sailing south from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean must traverse this strait near Yemen.
Houthi tribal militias ousted the legal, elected Yemeni government in late 2014 and occupy most of Yemen, including its Red Sea coast. Iran allegedly provides them with arms and training, including drone and missile technology, as it does Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
More than nine years of catastrophic civil war have been precipitated by the Houthi rebellion, which has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe. Despite Iran's support for the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States and the United Kingdom launched an unsuccessful war against them in 2015 in an attempt to reinstate the internationally recognised government.
In addition to military targets, the Houthis have struck civilian airports, villages, and petrochemical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and within Yemen with an assortment of long-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Houthis, in solidarity with "their brothers in Gaza" and in response to the latest Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza that erupted on October 7, have launched drones and missiles at Eilat and other Israeli targets. These were intercepted and fired down by the USS Carney of the United States Navy. However, the Houthis have also targeted vessels they believe to have Israeli ties to cargo. In November, they helicopter-deployed soldiers onto the Galaxy Leader cargo ship's deck and seized it.
They have sworn to prevent Israeli vessels from passing their coast, and their military spokesman stated on Sunday that the targets of their missiles were targeted because they were "Israeli." The Israeli military has refuted any governmental association with the vessels; however, media outlets have reported that there are certain private commercial ties with affluent Israeli entrepreneurs. Subsequently, the United States stated that it is "considering all suitable responses in complete coordination with its allies and partners."
Practically speaking, Washington will be averse to further escalating tensions in a region that is already apprehensive about the repercussions of the Gaza conflict. But if the Houthis in Yemen continue to launch missiles beyond their borders, the United States may ultimately determine that retaliation against those missile launch sites is necessary.
Should such an event transpire, there is an inherent danger that Iran, an ally of the Houthis, might respond with retaliatory measures, potentially precipitating a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. This is something that both parties wish to avoid for the time being.