The Red Sea a powder keg that all military powers

The Red Sea: a powder keg that all military powers want to control

Yemen's Houthi rebels keep global trade under control. Their incessant attacks on ships in the Red Sea have increased tensions in one of the most unstable and militarized regions on earth and drastically reduced traffic through a vital sea route for the global transport of goods and hydrocarbons. The volatility and geostrategic importance of the area are reflected in the constant presence of troops from almost all military powers; and in the Kremlin's desire to establish a base in the Red Sea after several failed attempts. The civil wars ravaging its coasts, the resurgence of piracy and Ethiopia's fixation on access to the sea are causing the temperature of its already hot waters to continue to rise.

Disruptions to maritime traffic in the Red Sea, considered safe for decades, began at the beginning of the century with the rise of Somali piracy. Since 2015, the war in Yemen has transformed the Southern Sea into an armed conflict zone, and the wave of attacks by Houthi militias in retaliation for Israel's invasion of Gaza threatens to make it impassable. The critical point is the Bab el Mandeb Strait (Gate of Tears – or Lamentations – in Arabic), which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and through which, until a few weeks ago, about 30% of container shipping and 12% of container ships passed World oil trade.

The Houthis, who control northwest Yemen, have for years been resisting attacks by the military coalition that the Saudis and Emiratis launched shortly after the rebels seized power in the capital Sanaa. Because they are less ideologically aligned with Tehran than other pro-Iranian militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or the militias operating in Syria and Iraq, the close relationship between the two, based on their hostility towards Riyadh, has strengthened the military capabilities of Yemeni militiamen and allows The Islamic Republic to operate indirectly in the Red Sea. Eleona Ardemagni, a researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies (ISPI) in Milan, believes that Iran is the main beneficiary of the crisis. “It diverts focus from its territory, increases the sense of Israel’s encirclement and undermines the deterrent power of the United States in the region,” the Red Sea expert claims.

Since the war in Gaza began, the Houthis have fired countless drones and missiles at ships; They have hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a ship linked to an Israeli businessman and still moored in the port of Hodeida; and they have demonstrated the ability to reach Eilat, some 1,500 kilometers away, Israel's only Red Sea port, which has not been visited by a single ship since November.

Since the end of December, the United States has led “Guardian of Prosperity”: a multinational naval operation that, according to Washington, more than twenty countries have joined, although only twelve have recognized it (Germany, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Greece). , Netherlands, United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, Seychelles, Singapore and Sri Lanka). Since the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower and three American destroyers in the conflict area, most of the devices fired from the Yemeni coast have been intercepted, but at a very high price: more than two million euros for each missile used to destroy a Houthi drone worth less than 2,000 euros, according to the Pentagon.

A group of recruits recently mobilized by the Houthi militia near Sana'a last Monday.A group of recruits recently mobilized by the Houthi militia near Sana'a last Monday.YAHYA ARHAB (EFE)

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The US and British militaries have fired more than 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles and guided bombs against radars, air defense installations and weapons depots belonging to pro-Iranian militias. Luca Nevola, a researcher specializing in Yemen at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) analysis center, believes it is “extremely unlikely” that Washington and London will be able to put an end to their attacks on the Houthis' conditioning ability to navigate.

There were direct clashes at sea. On December 31, the US Navy prevented the hijacking of a ship by Shiite militias by sinking three of their speedboats; an incident in which a dozen Houthis were killed. In early January, two U.S. Marines died after falling into the water on board during a nighttime mission. Weapons were confiscated from Iran that were intended for the Iranian-backed militias in Yemen.

EU naval mission

While the United States acts as the gendarme of the Red Sea, the European Union plans to authorize a joint naval operation in February, in which Spain does not oppose but excludes participation. Camille Lons from the Analysis Center of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) emphasizes that Brussels is finalizing an alternative mission to the one led by Washington that would be “more defensive, less aggressive towards Iran and less cooperative in the invasion of Gaza”. ” The researcher adds that American and British bombing raids have so far failed to stop attacks in the Red Sea and have made Yemeni militias “more popular than ever at home and in the region.”

The emboldened Houthis have mobilized more than 20,000 new recruits in recent weeks. “A large part of the population who criticized them for corruption, violence, repression and economic catastrophe are now enthusiastically taking part in the massive demonstrations they are organizing,” said Abdulghani al Iryani, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. “They do this with the belief that they are on the right side of history; “It is incredible to what extent Yemenis are willing to sacrifice themselves for the Palestinian cause,” continues Al Iryani from his exile in Cairo.

The Houthi militia's constant provocations, its recent designation by Washington as a terrorist organization and the US military's response have derailed bilateral peace negotiations between the Yemeni rebels and Riyadh, from which Abu Dhabi has always distanced itself. “The Saudis have been trying to get out of the nightmare that their intervention in Yemen has become since at least 2019,” concludes Nevola. The Acled analyst underlines Riyadh's interest in de-escalating the current Red Sea crisis. “The peace process is a priority for Saudi Arabia, which also fears the Houthis will retaliate [por los bombardeos de EE UU]are resuming their attacks against their oil facilities.” In September 2019, drones launched from Yemen caused gigantic fires at the Abqaiq and Khurais refineries, resulting in a 5% decline in global oil production.

Pro-Palestinian demonstration organized by the Houthis in Yemen's capital on Friday.Pro-Palestinian demonstration organized by the Houthis on Friday in the capital of Yemen.YAHYA ARHAB (EFE)

Power struggle on the African coast

On the other side of Bab el Mandeb, in Djibouti, the region's smallest and only stable country, foreign military bases are more concentrated than anywhere else in the world. The facilities in Italy, Japan, France – which have also had a Spanish detachment since 2008 – and the one being built by Saudi Arabia are just a few kilometers from China's only permanent military base abroad and Camp Lemonnier, the only American one , removed Africa.

The security and tranquility of Djibouti stands in contrast to the violence, chaos or repression that prevails in neighboring countries, where Moscow, Ankara, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi are trying to increase their influence.

In Somalia, a country in a constant state of war, Turkey opened its largest foreign base near the capital Mogadishu in 2017. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has military facilities in Somaliland, a Somali region that has been de facto independent since the 1990s. And in the south of the country, Al Shabab, Al-Qaida's branch in the Horn of Africa, controls large parts of the coast.

Russia has been negotiating access to the Red Sea with various African leaders for decades. After the failure in Djibouti, Moscow seduced the Sudanese Omar al Bashir in April 2019, just weeks before his overthrow. Last February, the Kremlin managed to reach a new pact with the dictator's successors to establish a naval base in Port Sudan, but the civil war that broke out two months later destroyed the deal.

The Kremlin is now focusing its efforts on Eritrea, the continent's most secretive country. Despite the secrecy, the harmony between the Russian and Eritrean regimes is evident. The African country was one of five UN members, along with Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea, to vote against the resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine in March 2022. And Eritrean dictator Isaías Afwerki traveled to Moscow twice last year, the only time in his more than three decades in power.

The strengthening of ties between Russia and Eritrea coincides with the brutal Afwerki dictatorship's cooling of relations with Israel, which closed its embassy in Asmara, and the United Arab Emirates, which established its base in Asab, close to Djibouti. have been disbanding for air offensives against the Houthis for years.

The UAE has emerged as a major player across the region, despite the Red Sea not inundating its shores. The Emirati army maintains unrecognized military facilities on two Yemeni islands: tiny Perim, which bisects Bab el Mandeb, and strategically important Socotra in the Gulf of Aden. In addition, Abu Dhabi has built a network of port infrastructure along Africa's Red Sea coast, from Somalia to Egypt, strengthening its military capabilities.

The Emirati government is setting its own regional agenda, which is increasingly diverging from that of Saudi Arabia. In contrast to Riyadh's criticism of Washington's attacks on the Houthis, Abu Dhabi remains silent, watching to see whether the escalation could be a turning point in achieving its goals in Yemen. The civil war in Sudan, where their interests differ, has made tensions between the two major Gulf monarchies even more evident.

The Ethiopian obsession with going to the sea

Tensions escalated further in the Horn of Africa when Ethiopia – the world's most populous landlocked country – announced an agreement with Somaliland to establish a commercial port and naval base in return for recognition as an independent country and an unspecified number of shares in Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's most important airline. The Ethiopian government's obsession with regaining access to the sea that it lost after Eritrea's independence in 1993 has revived the ghosts of war with its former province and angered the Somali government, which has banned planes from its neighbor . The terrorist group Al Shabab, in turn, calls on its followers to join “jihad”. [guerra santa] against the Ethiopian invader.”

The pirates have set sail from some jihadist-controlled Somali beaches and have boarded several ships in recent weeks, the first such acts since 2019. Some analysts do not rule out that these actions are coordinated with the Houthis, but the Majority believe Al Shabab is just trying to profit from the chaos caused by Yemeni rebels. The MV Ruen, a Bulgarian merchant ship flying the Maltese flag, remains seized off the Somali coast. Other boarding attempts were thwarted by the intervention of military ships from the United States or India, which sent three destroyers near the Gulf of Aden.

Camille Lons stresses that the re-emergence of piracy makes the EU's naval mission “even more urgent”. The EFCR analyst emphasizes that the damage this crisis represents to Europe is greater than to the United States or other powers. Traffic on the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, has fallen nearly 50% in the past two months, a decline that represents a seismic blow to Egypt's economy. As more than a dozen shipping companies reroute their cargo ships around the Cape of Good Hope, the cost of chartering a container from a Chinese port to a European port has tripled. “The Houthi attacks are forcing the EU to focus on the Red Sea, an area that is crucial to its interests and characterized by instability, but which has almost always disappeared from its radar,” says Lons.

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