“We have our eyes open to constantly monitor and search for any Israeli vessel in the Red Sea, especially in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and in the waters bordering Yemen. Even if the Israeli ships disable their devices in the Red Sea, they will not succeed. We will attack them without any hesitation.” When these words were uttered by Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the leader of the Ansarullah (Houthis) movement, they were considered an insignificant threat and did not cause major tension in Tel Aviv. Israel downplayed this threat, confident that even if the Ansarallah targeted Israel with missiles, they would be intercepted by US and Israeli air defense systems. The world also paid little attention to this threat.
However, in November, the targeting of Israeli-linked ships began, followed by attacks on other shipping vessels delivering cargo to Israel. By the end of December, the Ansarallah had carried out more than twenty attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea.
In light of this, why were the Ansarallah targeting these ships in the Red Sea, and what was their purpose?
Freedom of Navigation and Global Trade
In 1609, Hugo Grotius wrote “Mare Liberum” (Freedom of the Seas, Freedom of Navigation), which on the one hand, strengthened the Netherlands’ position against Spain by laying out a route to India, and on the other hand, laid the foundation for maritime law. Grotius, a leading figure in international law, defended the Netherlands’ interests against Portugal and Spain in the eyes of the Pope, by asserting that the right to sail the seas was not exclusive to colonizers but also belonged to other sovereign powers. Grotius’ thesis, fundamentally based on the idea that “the Netherlands has as much right to exploit India as anyone else,” transcended its immediate context and influenced global trade and politics for over four centuries. Every hegemonic power has built its global dominance either on the freedom of the seas or the power to disable them. Today, this dynamic remains valid, with open seas for trade being a crucial foreign policy principle for both the US and China. Global trade is fundamentally built on this concept.
According to the UNCTAD ‘Review of Maritime Transport 2022’ report, more than 80 percent of global trade is conducted by ships. Although the UN states this figure, the International Chamber of Shipping suggests that maritime trade actually accounts for 90 percent of global trade. In other words, 9 out of every 10 traded goods are transported by ships. Massive containers transport essential items such as energy, food, medicine, and clothing from one end of the world to the other. Considering the vastness of the world, the speed at which ships move from one point to another underscores the importance of certain critical transit points in a capitalist system that values speed. In addition to speed, ships aim for maximum profit by taking the shortest and least risky routes, and if possible, operating with the smallest necessary crew. So, what does this information have to do with the Ansarallah?
The Red Sea as a Center of Global Trade
The transportation of ships from one point to another via the shortest route necessitates the use of certain transit points around the world. Some canals and seas are particularly important in this regard. For example, the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic to the Pacific, allows global trade to flow between Europe and Asia without circumnavigating the African continent (Cape of Good Hope). The Red Sea, along with the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb crossing point connecting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, are also critical geographical points.
According to data from Tanker Tracking and Bloomberg LP, the Red Sea is the transit route for 12 percent of global trade. In 2023, 24,000 ships passed through it. Specifically, 30 percent of containerized goods and 10 percent of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) use the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. Nearly 1 trillion dollars worth of goods and products are transported through this sea annually.
With the onset of the Ukraine War (2022), the importance of the Red Sea has been underscored for Europe, Asia, and Russia. Europe, aiming to curb Russia through sanctions, began to source some of its LNG and oil demands from this region. Russia, suggesting that a world without Europe is possible, turned to this route to supply its oil and LNG to Asia. Tanker Tracking data reveals a significant increase in Red Sea traffic, especially for oil. Namely, around 3 million barrels of oil and petroleum products passed through the Red Sea daily before the Ukraine War. This figure rose to 6.5 million barrels by mid-2022 and 2023. Russia’s oil throughput on this route increased from around 1 million barrels before the war to nearly 3 million barrels. The Ansarallah started targeting the Red Sea precisely because of this increased traffic and the economic value it generates.
Corporate Divestment and US Gendarmerie
After November 15, the Ansarallah began targeting Israeli ships, followed by vessels belonging to companies involved with Israel. The underestimation of the power of the group, which has seized control of northern Yemen with Iranian support, led to the hurried formation of a coalition force. Non-participants in this coalition faced criticism and pressure.
Between November and December 2023, the Ansarallah launched over twenty attacks in the Red Sea. The companies targeted by these attacks – the giants of global shipping – quickly began to divert from this transit route. Maersk of Denmark, Hapag-Lloyd of Germany, CMA CGM of France, MSC of Sweden, OOCL of Hong Kong, and Evergreen of Taiwan were among the major companies using the Red Sea. Additionally, BP and Euronav (Belgium) were transporting energy through this route. A staggering 95 percent of these companies halted their operations, turning to the Cape of Good Hope as an alternative to the Red Sea. Evergreen and OOCL announced they would no longer handle cargo from Israel and publicized this decision in the press to prevent their ships from being targeted by the Ansarallah. Other companies modified their routes based on risk analyses. Experts warn that with the Red Sea compromised, delays in the global supply chain could range from 1 week to 30 days. Moreover, transportation costs are expected to rise due to the increased distance, potentially exacerbating the inflationary impact on the global economy, which is still recovering from the pandemic.
In response to this impasse, the US and the UK began to intervene against the Ansarallah, invoking Grotius’ principle of navigation. They also formed a coalition with countries like Norway, Italy, France, Bahrain, Greece, Canada, and Bahrain. Named ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’, this group aims to secure the Red Sea. While most coalition members provide only symbolic support, the UK is actively engaging with Iran. The operation, well-known to be led and executed by the US, demonstrates a significant international response.
As with any hegemon, US hegemony is based on the continuation of trad that is, shaping the world in accordance with US interests, without interruption in the event of setbacks. In a crisis, the hegemon is unsettled by the interruption of this flow, and its confidence is only reaffirmed when normalcy resumes. For the US, it is unacceptable for a small group to disrupt this flow, especially given its global power. At this juncture, military force often accompanies diplomatic efforts.
In fact, the US is ignoring the clear demands of the Ansarallah. The Yemeni movement are calling for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza and for Israel to cease its operations there. These demands, echoed by the Ansarallah, resonate with the general populace worldwide. Protests echoing these demands are occurring from Europe to Asia. However, instead of applying pressure on Israel, the US is engaging in typical tactics to counter the Ansarallah. The incident where US helicopters sank three Ansarallah boats and killed 10 militants on the last day of 2023 demonstrates that lethal attacks are a considered option. In essence, the US tolerates actions by Israel, particularly under the Netanyahu government, which provokes regional dissent. While dissenters may freely express themselves, targeting global trade, especially major shipping companies, challenges the boundaries of US power and the economic system it upholds, highlighting vulnerabilities and the limits of its influence. The dynamic of borders and power raises the question of whether an intervention in Yemen or Iran is feasible, considering the current geopolitical balance.
Geopolitical Balances in the Region and Possible Intervention
The Ansarallah, who have ruled Yemen for many years, gained strength during the civil war that started in 1962. While the Sunni regime took control, a youth movement in the 1990s signaled that the Ansarallah would not relinquish their influence in Yemen, even if they remained silent. The Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, shifted the balance in Yemen, and by 2015, the Yemeni Civil War (essentially a regional power struggle) precipitated a confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh over Yemen’s geopolitics. Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy conflict in Yemen, a battleground for Wahabi, Sunni Islam, and Shiite Islam, each seeking dominance in the Middle East. The 2022 change in US administration prompted Saudi Arabia to reassess its Yemen policy.
The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with the US, found itself entrenched in a war that lasted nearly a decade. Riyadh, negotiating with Iran, began talks with the Ansarallah for a permanent ceasefire, aiming for an agreement by 2023. This situation led to more cautious support for the Ansarallah from US allies in the Gulf. Additionally, the absence of any other Gulf country in the Coalition, except Bahrain, indicates public pressure in Arab nations. Despite being monarchies, public opinion in these countries is not insignificant. The Palestinian Question and their states’ policies towards Israel have quieted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, especially as images of Israeli actions in Gaza circulate. These countries are concerned that any agreement reached in Yemen could collapse suddenly. If Riyadh and Abu Dhabi confront the Ansarallah under the guise of defending Palestine, sympathy for the Ansarallah, and by extension Iran, might increase domestically and in Yemen, potentially bolstering Iran’s regional influence. Consequently, both Gulf states must carefully calculate their positions.
Additionally, the UAE normalized relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia was following a similar path when the Hamas attack occurred. Hamas questioned the rich Arab countries’ normalization with Israel, asking “what will happen to us?” The silence in these countries indicated that the balance established with Israel would not dissolve quickly and that economic interests outweighed the Palestinian issue. While this is the official stance, public opinion in these countries sees the issue differently. The public demonstrated in support of a just Palestinian peace. These countries, desiring to maintain relations with Israel post-conflict in Gaza, are impacted by the attacks in the Red Sea but are hesitant to act beyond subdued calls. The US mentioned unnamed actors in the coalition, suggesting the involvement of these countries. However, even if they participate covertly with limited support, they cannot openly acknowledge it.
Iran, the backer of theAnsarallah, plays a significant role in the region’s geopolitical balance. Since the 1990s, Iran’s policy of expanding its influence along the Shiite axis has broadened. Tehran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas in Palestine, and the Ansarallah in Yemen to create a structure aligned with its interests. While Iran may not establish governments aligned with its ideology, these actors prevent the formation of opposition structures. Tehran supports these groups in various ways, from education to financial assistance. These four actors form Iran’s axis of resistance and regional insurance. Iran is aware of the opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia and the potential targeting by the US. However, the Ansarallah in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Assad/Sham regime in Syria not only tilt the Middle Eastern balance in Iran’s favor but also allow Iran to confront opposing actors with a counter-bloc when necessary.
The failure of any of these actors weakens Iran’s axis of resistance and exposes Tehran to greater risks. This is why Iran prioritizes these groups and wages its struggles through them. Moreover, the Ansarallah’ control over northern Yemen and the Damascus regime’s hold on parts of Syria strengthen Iran’s influence in the Middle East. For instance, the Ansarallah’ demands in recent demonstrations paint them as defenders of Palestinian interests. With Iran’s support, it is perceived as the sole champion of the Palestinian cause, gaining sympathy and expanding its influence. This is why the UK’s recent request for Iran to withdraw support from the Ansarallah was unmet. Additionally, Iran dispatched the warship Elbrus to the Red Sea. Given these dynamics, the possibility of US military involvement in Yemen and the implications of the Ansarallah’ actions and other affected actors in the Red Sea are complex and multifaceted.
From Egypt to the US: Regional Dynamics and the Possibility of an Attack
One of the countries significantly affected by the attacks in the Red Sea is Egypt, which often doesn’t receive adequate attention. Ships using the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean Sea, or vice versa, pay transit fees to Egypt. According to the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), transit through the canal has almost doubled, particularly since the Ukraine war, leading to a similar increase in revenues. Before 2022, Egypt earned between 4-5 billion dollars annually from the Canal, but in the last two years, this has risen to between 8-10 billion dollars. For Cairo, grappling with an economic crisis, these revenues are crucial. When Israeli operations in Gaza commenced, Egypt maintained a more neutral stance. Though it hosted international summits, issues arose with the Rafah border crossing. Consequently, while attempting to halt Israeli actions, the Ansarallah inadvertently penalized Egypt. Now, it appears Egypt will need to adopt a more proactive policy and exert pressure to resolve the issue.
Another consideration is whether the US will attack Yemen to combat the Ansarallah. Given the regional tensions, the Biden administration has declared no plans for such action. Undertaking it would be a significant escalation for the US, particularly as two of its key Gulf allies believe a Yemen intervention would be detrimental to them. Additionally, domestic criticism in the US of the White House’s policy towards Israel has intensified, increasing pressure on the government. Furthermore, for the US economy still recovering from the pandemic, such an intervention could pose serious economic challenges.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq significantly tarnished the US’s global image, making it one of the most disliked countries worldwide. This legacy has led the US to prefer a more behind-the-scenes role in the Middle East. This approach was evident in the Syrian War. Currently, with the US focusing on China and shifting its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, opening a new front in the Middle East would be costly in the medium to long term. The same rationale applies to intervening in Iran. Therefore, the US is likely to limit its actions to pressure and limited operations in the Red Sea or covert operations in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the Ansarallah have been attacking Israel with limited force, even declaring war on Israel since the onset of Israeli operations in Gaza. While the Ansarallah understand they cannot defeat Israel, and their missile attacks have failed to cause significant attrition, their actions in the Red Sea have disrupted a segment of global trade. Companies are reassessing risks and withdrawing from the region, pressuring their governments to act. Businesses may ultimately compel governments to restrain Israel, driven not by human rights or democracy, but by profit concerns.
The Ansarallah’ latest move has significantly raised their profile globally. They strive to be recognized as the primary actor in Yemen, a goal underscored by their Red Sea campaign. The global community and the UN officially recognize the government in southern Yemen, not the Ansarallah. However, the Red Sea attacks have brought the Ansarallah and their leaders into the spotlight of global media. This visibility is likely to bolster their position in Yemeni politics and in negotiations with Saudi Arabia, potentially enhancing Iran’s influence in Yemen.