Gaza war extends to the Red Sea
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has now spread to the Red Sea. A possible third war front has opened up, which is proving to be not only dangerous but also threatens the region’s economic and political equilibrium, because in addition to those involved in the initial conflict, it involves more belligerents, such as Egypt, the U.S, Mediterranean countries and numerous others. In fact, in response to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which has become increasingly massive and deadly over time and has now extended to the entire Strip, the Houthis, a Yemeni Shiite militia, have launched a series of attacks on the mostly Western merchant ships and tankers making their way through the Red Sea to reach the Mediterranean. Their leaders claim that they are acting in this way in order to support the Gaza cause and the Palestinians by preventing Western ships from supplying weapons or any military materiel to the State of Israel. It would appear that they are acting as Tehran’s proxy in the ongoing conflict. In fact, according to many analysts, Iran, Israel’s principal enemy, appears to be carrying out its campaign against Israel not directly – which would be difficult at this time – but by proxy, through Shiite militias scattered across the Middle East. These include the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis, and numerous groups they have funded and trained in Syria and Iraq, which in recent weeks have directed their actions, launching drones or missiles, against U.S. installations in these countries.
The situation was further aggravated at Christmas when Razi Mousavi, a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who had been a close associate of Qassem Soleimani (assassinated by the U.S. in 2020), was eliminated by the Israelis in Syria. This triggered a reaction from Iran, which vowed to avenge the death of one of its most important generals, thus fueling fear of the conflict spreading. For the time being, it has been Tehran’s “partners” who have taken action against Israel, both on the Lebanese border with Hezbollah and in the Red Sea with rockets fired by the Houthis. However, pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen in Iraq have also carried out attacks against U.S. bases, wounding three soldiers. These events have worried various governments and set diplomacy in motion in order to contain the conflict. Recently, some cease-fire plans were unofficially presented by Egypt and Qatar, which included the release of the approximately 130 hostages, but were rejected by Hamas.
On the other hand, President Biden has ordered his forces to carry out retaliatory airstrikes against these groups. This is significant because the president had repeatedly stated that U.S. soldiers would not be involved in any way in the new and complex Middle East conflict. In this case, however, according to President Biden, it is a matter of self-defense, and not an instance of Washington’s desire to extend the conflict. Indeed, at this very time, U.S. diplomacy is working to prevent the opening of new war fronts and to persuade the Israeli government, in its attack on Hamas in Gaza, to act “surgically,” limiting the killing of civilians as much as possible.
The Houthis joined the conflict on November 19 when their fighters hijacked a merchant ship linked to an Israeli company. On December 12, a missile fired from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen hit and seriously damaged a Norwegian tanker crossing the strait, not bound for Israel. French, British and other countries’ warships were also targeted. Earlier, on December 3, the USS Carney shot down several drones from Yemen that were heading toward it. The clash over the Red Sea escalated throughout December and beyond. According to U.S. sources, the Houthis during this period launched more than 100 drones and missiles at merchant ships linked to some 35 countries. This has been denounced in various international forums as an affront to the principle of freedom of navigation, which is already at risk in the Black Sea and South China Sea. This does great harm to the global economy and harms the countries reliant on shipping through the Suez Canal.
With these aggressive actions and determination to intervene in the Gaza conflict, the Houthi guerrillas intend to assert their position in the Arab world, where the Palestinian cause remains popular and arouses strong feelings. They are also sending a clear signal that the Red Sea has become a legitimate theater of confrontation for the struggle against Israel, and that they are even willing to attack U.S. warships and commercial vessels that have even a remote, if any relationship with Israel.
According to many strategists, Yemeni fighters actually have the military capability to carry out such acts and strike targets at greater distances, as has already been done. However, to date they have not succeeded in reaching into the heart of Israeli territory. They have received in recent times a huge amount of anti-ship missiles and drones from Iran, among them, the deadly Shahed 136, which Russia is using against Ukraine. The fact of the matter is that the Houthis’ military capabilities are such that they could block the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (between Djibouti and Yemen), at the southern end of the Red Sea, from navigation, creating a bottleneck that would put the entire Red Sea navigation system in crisis, just as Iran had previously threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula. In any case, Bab el-Mandeb is a favorable position from which to attack ships entering the Red Sea.
While so far the conflict between Hamas and Israel, despite its dramatic ferocity, has not had major economic consequences in the region, the recent escalation frightens everyone because it threatens to disrupt for an indefinite time a key route of world trade in goods and hydrocarbons.
Two attacks at the beginning of the new year – the elimination in Beirut of Hamas deputy political leader Saleh al-Arouri and the January 3 attack on the mausoleum of Soleimani (former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, killed in 2020 by the U.S.) in the Kerman cemetery, which killed nearly 100 people – increase the risk of an escalation of the conflict that began in Gaza, to one directly involving Iran. In reality, these events are very different from each other, both in the way they have been conducted and the targets. If the former, as some analysts say, suggests Mossad intervention, the latter is more in line with the anti-Shiite attacks carried out in the past by ISIS.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has ominously declared, “If the enemy plans to wage war on Lebanon, our fight will be without limits or rules.” Although no major clashes have occurred in the region for the time being, the risks of a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah are rapidly increasing. Iranian leaders, for their part, have declared that the perpetrators of the Kerman bombing will soon be identified and punished. Some of them pointed the finger at the regime’s historical enemies, the U.S. and Israel. “The terrorists,” said the head of Iran’s judiciary, “are mercenaries of arrogant powers and will certainly be punished.” Promptly, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller declared that neither the U.S. nor Israel was involved in the attack. In fact, it is not in the interest of the U.S., especially before the 2024 presidential election, to open a new war front, provoking a direct confrontation with Iran; on the contrary, U.S. diplomacy is working to prevent such an eventuality. The U.S. prefers to strike Tehran’s allies who attack U.S. targets abroad, namely in Iraq or Syria. Regarding the January 3 massacre, analysts have tended to think of it as an operation carried out by some Sunni Isis cells. In fact, the next day the terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the attack. One of its communiqués specified its meaning: “The war against the Jews is just, but it must be a religious war and not just a nationalist war, due to the fact that the soil of Palestine is sacred because it contains Jerusalem, the third holy city of Islam.”
But who are the Houthis, and why are they involved in the war between Israel and Hamas? A brief historical overview will help us understand.
The conflict between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia
The Houthis are a tribal group, found mostly in northern Yemen, an area bordering Saudi Arabia. They are Zaidi Shiites, that is, one of the earliest offshoots of Islam. Doctrinally, they profess moderate Shiism, and their beliefs are not too dissimilar from those of the Sunnis, with some of whom they maintain cordial relations and often share the same mosques for prayer. They recognize the legitimacy of the first three “rightly guided” caliphs and, unlike the Duodecimans (Iranian Shiites), reject the doctrine of the Hidden Imam and do not await the return of the Mahdi. Most of them today are concentrated in Yemen (where they account for 40 percent of the population) and Saudi Arabia (where they account for 5 percent of the population).
The Saudis, who profess a strict Sunnism, i.e., Wahhabism, regard the Houthis as heretics and therefore enemies, because they were considered pro-Iranian, or rather, as they used to say, Tehran’s proxy in the Arabian Peninsula. That is why in the 1980s the Saudis created a Wahhabi settlement in the heart of the region inhabited by the Zaidis for centuries, which over the years attracted other Sunni militants. This gave rise to continuous conflicts between the two different religious groups. In those years, the Zaidis, under the charismatic leadership of Hussein al Houthi – hence the recent naming of the tribal group – turned to Iranian Shiites for help in their religious instruction, which did not please the leadership in Riyadh.
Present-day Yemen was divided into two separate states from 1962 to 1990: in the north, the Yemen Arab Republic, ruled authoritatively by Ali Abdullah Saleh; in the south, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, ruled by a Marxist-dominated regime. After unification in May 1990, several independence movements spread in the south, fighting against the central government, which was firmly controlled by President Saleh.
After September 11, 2001, the United States asked the Yemeni government to participate in the fight against international terrorism and, in particular, to dismantle a major cell of jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda that had been established in the country. Saleh replied to the U.S. that the problem of Shiite agitators in the north, also considered dangerous terrorists, had to be solved first. Riyadh, for its part, convinced their U.S. ally of the validity of this proposal. The campaign against the Zaidis began in 2004, and for years was a major cause of Yemen’s instability and poverty.
In 2009, hoping for a final victory against his Zaidi enemies, Saleh asked for Saudi help and, in particular, permission for the Yemeni army to enter Saudi territory to take the enemy from behind. It was then that a small Houthi contingent entered Saudi Arabia, occupying a small border region, to prevent the encirclement of their own territory. From that moment the conflict took a new course, and the Houthis had to fight a more powerful and determined enemy, Saudi Arabia. Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Saud, eldest son of the late Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd-al Aziz Al Saud, took command of military operations, immediately mobilizing the armed forces and declaring the southern part of the country a war zone. The Saudi air force carpet bombed the region inhabited by the Zaidis, including the capital, Sana’a. Despite extensive material damage and heavy loss of Houthi civilian life the Saudis failed to defeat the enemy. On many occasions the Houthis got the better of the Saudis, who suffered numerous casualties. After this humiliating military defeat, the Saudis initiated a decisive rearmament policy, purchasing armaments worth $60 billion from the United States, their historical ally: it was the largest arms sale in U.S. history.
One of the most important moments in Yemen’s modern history was the so-called “Arab Spring,” which marked the end of Saleh’s long regime of more than 30 years. The Yemeni revolution was spearheaded mainly by the Houthis, who were protesting being discriminated against by the administration in power. In 2014, the Houthis left their home area and took control of the country’s capital, Sana’a. With Iranian support, they also captured much of western Yemen. The head of state at the time, ‘Abd Rabbih Mansūr Hadī, took refuge in Saudi Arabia, and in the following year, the Saudis, at his request, resumed a vigorous military campaign against the Houthis in an attempt to occupy the country: some 19,000 civilians died in the numerous airstrikes.
In early 2023, the UN said that Yemen was still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Pope Francis, on several occasions, called on the international community to remember battered Yemen. Since the April 2022 ceasefire, Yemen has enjoyed relative calm. This has allowed the Houthis to strengthen their influence over those parts of the country that they had occupied militarily, primarily the capital. Talks are still ongoing with the Saudis in order to end the long and bloody war. Any agreement would consolidate the Houthis’ position within a new executive, not least because much of Yemen’s population lives in the territories they have conquered.
Political and economic consequences of the Red Sea attacks
Houthi guerrilla attacks on ships in the Red Sea are effectively crippling traffic through the Suez Canal and threatening to cost Mediterranean countries, including Italy, dearly. These events have taken us back 160 years, and now tankers and container ships connecting Europe to Asia are opting to make the circumnavigation of Africa, passing around the Cape of Good Hope, lengthening the journey by about 10 days, a detour that in time could lead to higher freight and fuel prices in the European market. For the moment it “is putting a strain on international transport networks. In fact, one-tenth of world trade transits through the Red Sea, and the repercussions on Italy may be even heavier,” because 90 percent of Italian trade depends on products arriving by sea.
In fact during this period many shipping companies have decided not to pass through the Red Sea. As of December 15, 2023, four of the five largest shipping companies – CMA-Lloyd, CGM, Hapag-Maersk and MSC – have avoided the passage through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. On December 18, BP, the oil and gas transportation giant, decided to abandon this route, which had become dangerous. This has raised the insurance costs of cargo ships considerably, and will have significant consequences for the global economy. Let us not forget that about 10 percent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the Red Sea to access the Mediterranean and supply European markets. This state of affairs will particularly hurt Egypt, which earned nearly $10 billion from Suez Canal navigation fees in 2022.
This state of affairs, as noted above, alarmed the international community. At the suggestion of the U.S., an international task force (i.e. a flotilla of ships armed with drones and missiles) was immediately formed, in which several countries, including Italy, participated, with the intent of deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and responding, as in fact happened, to guerrilla attacks. On January 12, 2024, the U.S. and UK carried out airstrikes against Houthi positions in Yemen. These raids mark the first U.S. military response to persistent drone and missile attacks on commercial vessels.
The Houthis hope that their attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea will give them greater influence in the ongoing negotiations with Saudi Arabia and that fighting in support of the Palestinian cause will increase their popularity in the Arab world, in addition, of course, to damaging Israel’s domestic economy. But it should also be remembered that these guerrilla actions have a very limited influence on Israel’s economy, because most of the goods headed to this country are transported through the Mediterranean port of Haifa. In fact, the Red Sea port of Eilat handles only 5 percent of Israel’s maritime trade.
The consequences of the reported attacks, which will continue as long as the Israeli army is present in Gaza, will certainly be much more devastating for Yemen, which imports 80 percent of its food needs through ports located on the Red Sea, such as Hodeidah. After the bombs, rockets and drones of recent months, ships are avoiding calling at this port and charging higher prices for delivery of goods in order to cover insurance costs. This will lead to higher food prices in a country ravaged by war and hunger. Prices of basic necessities have quadrupled in the past five years, and more than two-thirds of the population relies on government and international subsidies to survive. What this means is that the Houthis, with their hybrid guerrilla warfare, are not harming Israel – as the domestic propaganda falsely proclaims – but are impeding global trade, with consequences that, over time, could be severe, but, above all, will bring a desperately poor country to its knees, starving its people.
. Cf. F. Caferri, “Israele uccide un capo Pasdaran. Teheran: ‘Ci vendicheremo’”, in la Repubblica, December 27, 2023, 12; “Israele continua a intensificare gli attacchi alla Striscia di Gaza”, in Internazionale, December 28, 2023.
. After the killing of Mousavi, Hezbollah’s second in command, Naim Qassem threatened, “It is imperative to confront the coalition of evil, represented by America, Israel, France, Britain, Italy, Germany and others, with the coalition of good, represented by the resistance in Palestine, Lebanon, the region and honorable countries such as Iran, Yemen, Iraq and others” (F. Caferri, “Si infiamma il Nord di Israele: Pronti a colpire Hezbollah”, in la Repubblica, December 29, 2023, 10). This statement is important to understand who the militiamen consider friends or enemies of the Islamic and Palestinian cause. For his part, the Israeli Defense Minister replied, “If the world and the Lebanese government do not act to stop attacks on the residents of the North and to keep Hezbollah away from the border, the Israeli military will” (ibid.).
. Cf. A. Madhani – Z. Miller – Q. Abdul-Zahra, “Biden Orders Strikes on Iranian-Aligned Group After U.S. Troops Injured in Drone Attack in Iraq”, in Time (https://time.com/6550996/joe-biden-airstrikes-iran-iraq-drone-attack/), December 26, 2023.
. Cf. ibid.
. See “The US Navy confronts a new Suez crisis”, in The Economist, December 19, 2023.
. See “Why Yemen’s Houthis are attacking ships in the Red Sea”, in The Economist, December 4, 2023.
. In 2022, the Houthis launched numerous attacks against the Saudi Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia, responsible for more than 10 percent of the world’s oil production. It was unprecedented for a militia from a failed country, such as Yemen, whose motto is “death to America and death to Israel,” to possess ballistic missiles capable of flying 2,000 km and hitting such important installations: missiles supplied by their ally Iran (see ibid.).
. Cf. G. Olimpio, “Un eccidio per scuotere il regime degli ayatollah. Isis, Israele, oppositori: quelle bombe senza firma”, in Corriere della Sera, January 4, 2024, 3.
. N. Del Gatto, “Sangue e rabbia”, in La Stampa, January 4, 2024.
. Cf. R. Hanikra, “Another war could break out on the Israel-Lebanon border”, in The Economist, January 4, 2024.
. N. Del Gatto, “Sangue e rabbia”, op. cit.
. Cf. P. Mastrolilli, “Non è opera nostra né di Israele. Ma l’America teme una escalation”, in la Repubblica, January 4, 2024, 3. These are not modes of action of Mossad, the State of Israel’s intelligence agency. It in fact prefers targeted operations, in the style of “Munich 1972.”
. Cf. D. Raineri, “L’Isis rivendica il massacro in Iran e chiama alla guerra santa”, in la Repubblica, January 5, 2024.
. Cf. R. Gritti – G. Anzena, I partigiani di Alì. Religione, identità e politica nel mondo sciita, Milan, Guerini e Associati, 2007, 50f.
. In fact, the Americans already doubted the relationship between the Zaidis and the ayatollah regime from the beginning of the military campaign in 2009. The U.S. ambassador to Yemen wrote to his government, “The fact that after five years of conflict there is still no convincing evidence of this link must force us to view the thesis with some skepticism” (“Danni collaterali”, in Internazionale, October 7/13, 2016, 53). Even so, because it was interested in the fight against Al Qaeda in that region, the U.S. did nothing to stop the ongoing civil war.
. Cf. ibid.
. G. Di Feo, “La nuova crisi di Suez”, in la Repubblica, December 20, 2023.
. Cf. “The US Navy confronts a new Suez crisis”, op. cit.
. Cf. G. Olimpio, “Raid e alleanze per fermare gli Houthi”, in Corriere della Sera, December 19, 2023; A. Simoni. “Il ricatto del Canale di Suez”, in La Stampa, December 19, 2023. A cargo ship (174 meters long), flying the Iranian flag, has been anchored for years right in the middle of the Red Sea, a few kilometers north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. According to U.S. intelligence, it is a spy ship tasked with warning Houthi guerrillas about the passage of ships bound for Israel. Cf. G. Di Feo, “La nave spia di Teheran che guida gli Houthi all’attacco nel Mar Rosso”, in la Repubblica, December 22, 2023.