February 23, 2015
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Three commercial ships traveling through the Red Sea were attacked by missiles launched by Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels, while the U.S. Navy shot down three drones. Tensions that are linked to the ongoing war in Gaza conflict and that may serve as an indication as to Iran's wider intentions.
PARIS — It’s a parallel war that has so far claimed fewer victims and attracted less public attention than the one in Gaza. Yet it increasingly poses a serious threat of escalating at any time.
This conflict playing out in the international waters of the Red Sea, a strategic maritime route, features the U.S. Navy pitted against Yemen's Houthi rebels. But the stakes go beyond the Yemeni militants — with the latter being supported by Iran, which has a hand in virtually every hotspot in the region.
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Houthis have been making headlines, despite Yemen’s distance from the Gaza front. Starting with missiles launched directed toward southern Israel, which were intercepted by U.S. forces. Then came attacks on ships belonging, or suspected of belonging, to Israeli interests.
On Sunday, no fewer than three commercial ships were targeted by ballistic missiles in the Red Sea. The missiles caused minor damage and no casualties. Meanwhile, three drones were intercepted and destroyed by the U.S. Navy, currently deployed in full force in the region.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for these attacks, stating their intention to block Israeli ships' passage for as long as there was war in Gaza. The ships targeted on Sunday were registered in Panama, but at least one of them was Israeli. In the days before, several other ships were attacked and an Israeli cargo ship carrying cars was seized, and is still being held in the Yemeni port of Hodeida.
Through these actions, the Houthis aim to affirm their affiliation with the "axis of resistance," a term used by movements opposed to Israel and linked to Iran. This axis includes Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Lebanese Hezbollah, pro-Syrian factions, and Iraqi Shia militias.
An escalation is at play.
The Houthis, a Yemeni military-religious organization related to Shia Islam, has been waging war for nearly a decade. Yemen devolved into a civil war following the Arab Spring of 2011, a war that was internationalized with the entry of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into the conflict. While the war has largely subsided, the Houthis seem clearly unwilling to abandon their regional role.
There is indeed an escalation at play, although the extent of the Houthis' intentions — and through them, Iran's intentions — remains uncertain.
The USS Carney transits the Suez Canal, October 18, 2023
Mc2 Aaron Lau/Planetpix/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Since October 7 and the U.S. deployment in the region, Iran and its allies have cautiously shown solidarity with Hamas without crossing certain lines in the sand. Whether it is Hezbollah's actions in southern Lebanon, Iraqi Shia attacks on U.S. bases, or Houthis naval incursions, nothing so far has been committed that is irreparable — that is, nothing that would warrant a major response from the U.S.
Indeed, the U.S. has thus limited itself to merely countering the Houthis in the Red Sea, or striking Iranian interests in Syria. But a real act of aggression, such as a direct and deadly strike on a U.S. ship in the Red Sea, could set off an uncontrollable chain of events. The Americans have made it clear from the beginning that Iranian soil will not be considered off limits.
The theater of operations in the Red Sea thus needs close monitoring to gauge Iran's true intentions: whether it's mere pro-Hamas posturing or a genuine war escalation.