Red Sea battle expands with US raids, EU steps up efforts against Houthis

The battle for freedom of navigation in the Red Sea escalated with the entry of a European Commission naval defense effort last week and more US and allied strikes against Houthi land targets over the weekend, but so far, the combined military efforts have not preventing insurgent attacks.

On Saturday night, the United States Central Command reported that the USS Mason shot down an anti-ship ballistic missile fired into the Gulf of Aden from areas of Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis. Central Command said the missile likely targeted the US-flagged chemical/oil tanker MV Torm Thor. The ship was not damaged and there were no injuries. Defense officials tell CNBC since February 21, there have been at least 59 attacks on commercial shipping interests in the Red Sea.

Last week, the European Union Naval Force’s Operation Aspides (EUNAVFOR), an EU defense maritime security operation, joined the French Navy’s operation alongside the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect the freedom of navigation of ships in the Red Sea. This is not the EU’s first mission to protect maritime trade, as it already patrols the waters off the Libyan coast, around the Cape of Good Hope and in the Gulf. However, the EU said the Red Sea moves reflect that the need for a stronger European presence in protecting ships from Houthi attacks.

Unlike the US and the UK, which both use defensive measures to protect commercial vessels on the water and launch attacks on Houthi land targets, Operation Aspides is solely about protecting the vessels by intercepting Houthi drones and missiles. It will not escort vessels as the EU has done in anti-piracy measures off Somalia, where pirates use small boats to board a vessel, a tactic not used by the Houthis.

The European Commission’s maritime operation is a complement to Operation Prosperity Guardian, Peter Stano, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told CNBC. The information gathered by Aspides is shared with both the French shipping company and OPG.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who has launched seven missions for the EU Commission, described the launch of the defense operation “as a quick and strong reaction to the behavior of the Houthis, who are attacking to merchant ships in the area.”

CNBC has been told that the four frigates and one aircraft in this operation will be deployed to protect any assets the Houthis have fired upon, with all flagged commercial vessels being offered protection.

“If the EU mission is well integrated with the US forces that are already present, that would be great,” said US Navy Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who served as policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Senator John McCain. “This interoperability can easily be provided through the use of standard NATO data links that are present on all these warships.”

On Saturday, US Central Command forces, along with UK forces, and supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand, carried out strikes against 18 targets in areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthis. These strikes are separate and distinct from Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Trade leaders urged more countries to join the military effort in the Red Sea.

“It is so critical because of the immediate direct and negative impact the Red Sea attacks have had on trade destined for or shipped from Europe,” said Steven Lamar, CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, about the EU’s stepped-up efforts. .. “But this is truly a global problem, as the disruption in the Red Sea/Suez Canal triggers a logistical butterfly effect that ripples around the world. It is past time for every country to align with these efforts so that we can collectively maintain a zero-tolerance approach to stop and prevent attacks on seafarers, their cargo and equipment now and in the future.”

There is also a war of disinformation going on over the Red Sea crisis. The Houthis have a history of making false claims by claiming to have “sunk” ships showing old, irrelevant videos to boost their messages.

The Houthis recently used video footage to claim they sank the Belizean-flagged British bulk carrier M/V Rubymar. The Rubymar did not sink, but the vessel was abandoned by the crew after the vessel began to take on water. The US Central Command released satellite images of the vessel on Friday showing significant damage to the ship, which had already caused an 18-mile-long oil spill.

The Central Command warned that the M/V Rubymar was carrying more than 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked, which could spill into the Red Sea and worsen the environmental disaster.

As the EU increased its presence in the region last week, Houthi foreign ministry official Hussein al-Azi said on Wednesday that the rebel army had “constructive talks” with the EU. Stano dismissed the idea of ​​any talks between the EU and the group.

“The interpretation of the EU’s approach regarding the Aspides naval mission by the Houthis is not accurate,” he said. “The EU denies coordinating with the Houthis on the safe passage of commercial ships through the Red Sea and is consistent in its condemnation of the Houthi attacks.”

Stano said the attacks were a violation of international law, threatening maritime security, freedoms of navigation and global trade and endangering the lives of sea crews.

“They are also causing significant and unacceptable damage to trade, countries and people in the region,” he said. “They must be stopped immediately, as reiterated in UNSC Resolution 2722 adopted on January 10. This is a very clear message that is consistently delivered to the Houthis.”

The only communication the European Commission has had with the Houthis is the open communication it provided to the numerous countries in the region to provide clarity on Operation Aspides.

“The EU is conducting an extensive diplomatic outreach to inform partners and relevant stakeholders about the mandate and objective of the new EU maritime operation Aspides, insisting in particular on its defensive character and the protection of freedom of navigation,” Stano said.

On 2 February in Brussels, Borrell briefed Yemeni Prime Minister Bin Mubarak on plans to launch a new EU maritime operation in the Red Sea and its mandate. The two also briefly discussed the situation in Yemen and the EU’s long-standing support to the Presidential Leadership Council, the Yemeni government and the UN-led peace efforts.

“The head of the EU delegation accredited to Yemen maintains regular exchanges with all Yemeni interlocutors, including the Houthi leadership,” Stano said. “The EU reaffirms its commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen and its support to President Rashad Al-Alimi and the Presidential Leadership Council.”

Yemen’s role in the crisis is the focus of a possible investigation in the United States, with Federal Maritime Commission Commissioner Carl Bentzel proposing an investigation into Yemen’s inability to protect the Law of the Sea by not preventing the Houthis from attacking its waters country. obliged to protect under international maritime law. He said the CNBC meetings continue to discuss a way forward to launch the investigation.

A provision of the Foreign Shipping Act allows the federal government to initiate an investigation into the practices of a foreign government and examine the impact those actions have on global maritime commerce.

“The longer these effects last, the greater the economic impact,” Bentzel said. “We need an investigation to determine whether actions originating in Yemen are causing adverse shipping conditions in foreign trade.”

If the Commission agrees and the investigation proceeds, the State Department could assist the FMC.

“Economically, Egypt alone stands to lose over $5 billion this year in lost revenue as a result of the Suez Canal diversions. Tesla’s factory in Germany was forced to close for a month,” Bentzel said. “The US-flagged ships were attacked. Yemen has failed to ensure innocent passage of its territorial waters or straits. If terrorists fired rockets at a truck carrying Walmart or Target merchandise because they were doing business in Israel, there would be outrage. I don’t feel the same concern about shipping people,” he said.

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