What's In Blue

Posted Tue 2 Jan 2024

Houthi Red Sea Attacks: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow (3 January), the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea under the “Maintenance of international peace and security” agenda item. Ecuador, France, Guyana, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US requested the meeting earlier today. Mohamed Khaled Khiari, the Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, is expected to brief.

Since mid-November 2023, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen has conducted repeated attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and has severely disrupted international shipping after first launching missile and drone attacks starting in October against Israel that the Houthis threatened to continue until Israel ended its military campaign in Gaza. On 19 November, the Houthis captured  the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to an Israeli businessman, and its 25 crew members, after announcing on 14 November that it would start targeting Israeli ships. The capture of the Galaxy Leader was followed by the attempted seizure on 26 November of another commercial vessel in the Gulf of Aden, thwarted by a US naval vessel which appeared to be targeted by two suspected Houthi missiles shortly after the failed hijacking. In another series of attacks, on 3 December 2023, missiles reportedly struck three commercial vessels in the southern Red Sea, while a US naval ship shot down three Houthi drones.

Members may express grave concern at the briefing about the escalation of the maritime attacks. These have occurred almost daily after the Houthis announced on 9 December 2023 that they would target all ships heading to Israel and warned all international shipping companies to avoid Israeli ports. “If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sare’e said in a statement. Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said on 16 December 2023 that ending Houthi naval operations was contingent on Israel ending its siege of Gaza and allowing the entry of food and medicine. “[A]ny genuine steps responding to the humanitarian situation in Palestine and Gaza through bringing in food and medicine would contribute to reducing the escalation”, he reportedly claimed.

Several shipping companies have responded to the attacks by denying that their vessels were travelling to Israel. By mid-December, some of the world’s largest shipping firms suspended travel in the Red Sea and diverted container vessels through the much longer maritime passage around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

On 18 December 2023, the US announced the establishment of a multinational task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, to operate in the Red Sea to deter and counter the Houthi attacks. Countries participating in the operation include Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles, Spain, the UK, and the US. The initiative is to operate under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces, a multinational alliance initially established in the early 2000s to defend the world’s shipping lanes.

Attacks have continued, however. On 31 December, the US military announced that US helicopters responding to distress calls from the container ship Maersk Hangzhou sank three of four small Houthi boats that had come as close as 20 metres to the commercial vessel, killing their crews. The fourth boat escaped. The US said that its helicopters opened fire after they came under fire from the small vessels. The Houthis announced that ten of their fighters were killed in the attack. This was the second attack in less than 24 hours on the Maersk Hangzhou, which had been struck by a missile the day before, prompting a US intervention that intercepted two additional missile attacks. The 30 December attack was the twenty-third attack on international shipping in the Red Sea since 19 November, according to a US military statement.

On 1 January, UK Defense Minister Grant Shapps warned that the UK was prepared to take “direct action” to deter further attacks. There are reports that the UK–with the US, which has said that it has not ruled out military action–is planning possible airstrikes. Israel has reportedly refrained from intervening militarily to see what effect the multinational maritime task force in the Red Sea will have. Meanwhile, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported on 1 January that the Iranian warship Alborz had crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and entered the Red Sea.  Reports in December suggested that an Iranian surveillance vessel in the Red Sea had provided the Houthis with information for the attacks.

At the Security Council, Council members demanded in a 1 December 2023 press statement that all such attacks and actions cease immediately and called for the immediate release of the Galaxy Leader and its crew, which the Houthis continue to hold. The press statement further recalled the importance of enhancing international and regional cooperation to counter threats to peace and security in the region.

Council members have discussed the developments during their monthly meetings on Yemen, held in closed consultations. A major concern is the risk that the situation poses to the peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which have been nearing a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. During tomorrow’s briefing, Council members are likely to reiterate the need to not let these developments adversely affect Yemen’s peace process.  More recently, on 18 December, Council members met under “any other business” in closed consultations to discuss the Houthi Red Sea attacks. Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and Americas in the United Nations Department of Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča briefed.

Following this meeting, on 26 December, Japan and the US proposed a draft presidential statement to reaffirm the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, condemn the multiple Houthi attacks, and recognise the right of member states to take appropriate action to defend their merchant and naval vessels and the importance of international and regional cooperation to counter the threat. However, members could not agree to the text, amid concerns raised by China and Russia which, while reiterating their concerns over the threat posed to freedom of navigation, apparently contended that the presidential statement was unnecessary given the 1 December press statement that strongly condemned the Houthi attacks and contained other similar messaging.

At tomorrow’s session, members may reiterate their condemnation of the attacks as expressed in the 1 December press statement and during the 18 December consultations. Some may also echo points from a 19 December joint statement by the US, High Representative Josep Borrell on behalf of the European Union, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on behalf of NATO, and a group representing 44 allies and partner nations (including Japan and the Republic of Korea). In addition to condemning Houthi interference with navigational rights and freedoms and reiterating calls for the release of the Galaxy Leader and its crew, the statement noted that the attacks threaten the movement of food, fuel, humanitarian assistance, and other essential commodities to destinations and populations all over the world. During the session, members are also likely to highlight their concern over the risk of escalation that the attacks in the Red Sea create. They could further call on regional actors such as Iran to refrain from provocative acts.

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