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Escalation in Red Sea: US, UK prepare for potential military response to Houthis in Yemen

The Red Sea region is bracing for a potential escalation in violence as the United States and the United Kingdom prepare for possible military strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen. This comes in the wake of recent missile and drone attacks by the Houthi rebels, aimed at US and UK warships, intensifying the already volatile situation in the region.

The tension escalated when 21 missiles and drones were launched by the Houthis against Western naval assets earlier this week. Western defence sources have indicated that preparations for a potential retaliatory strike are underway, although details regarding the scale and timing of any military action remain undisclosed. There are rumours UK Special Forces units are on standby.

John Kirby, the US national security spokesperson, has remained tight-lipped about the specifics of any potential US strikes against the Houthis, emphasising the need to counter and defeat threats to commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned of consequences following the Houthi attack. UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps echoed this sentiment, advising journalists to “watch this space.”

In a defiant response, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Iran-backed Houthi group, which controls significant parts of Yemen, warned of a vigorous response to any American or British attack. He asserted the group’s determination to target ships linked to Israel, signaling a possible extension of conflict in the Red Sea region.

UK PM’s Rishi Sunak’s cabinet held a virtual meeting to discuss the UK’s involvement in potential strikes, highlighting the gravity of the situation. It’s understood that Labour leader Keir Starmer would be briefed post-meeting, indicating bipartisan concern over the issue.

Experts believe the likely targets for the US, UK, and their allies would be coastal radar and launch sites. Sidharth Kaushal from the Royal United Services Institute has pointed out the risks associated with such intervention, warning against sleepwalking into a protracted conflict. The strikes, likely from air and sea, must balance the need to act as a deterrent while minimising civilian casualties and not inflaming public opinion in an already tense Middle East.

Aid agencies have also expressed concern about the impact of further bombing on the Yemeni population, especially in a nation striving to end a nine-year civil war. Within Yemen there is a perception of the Houthi attacks as a form of resistance against Israel and the West.

This crisis comes amid a broader conflict in the Middle East, with Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza and escalating tensions between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This complex backdrop makes the situation in the Red Sea even more delicate.

The US and its allies, despite these complexities, seem increasingly inclined towards a military response to the Houthis. The group’s attacks in the southern Red Sea have been escalating since mid-October, seen as support for Hamas. Using Iran-designed weapons, the Houthis initially targeted merchant shipping in a crucial waterway, prompting major shipping companies to reroute, significantly impacting global trade.

The direct targeting of US and UK warships by the Houthis marks a significant escalation. The Royal Navy’s HMS Diamond, a destroyer, was among those targeted, forced to defend itself with Sea Viper/Aster missiles and machine guns.

The US-led international naval coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, aims to protect this vital waterway, with participation from various countries. The coalition is centered around the US aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower, equipped with F/A-18 aircraft capable of striking targets in Yemen.

In a separate but related development, Iran seized a US-linked oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, further heightening regional tensions. This action, though claimed to be unrelated to the Houthi attacks, adds another layer of complexity to the security of commercial shipping in the region.

The UN Security Council, in response to these developments, called for an immediate end to Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. A resolution, sponsored by the US and Japan, emphasized the right of UN member states to defend their vessels in accordance with international law.

This precarious situation in the Red Sea underscores the intricate balance of regional power dynamics, international security concerns, and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Dr. Iain Overton, AOAV’s Executive Director, expressed deep concern about the escalating situation in Yemen, emphasising the potential repercussions of military action.

“Yemen, already torn asunder by years of brutal war, faces a grim prospect,” Overton warned. “Any military campaign, even with the most precise targeting, carries an inherent risk of civilian casualties. These strikes, likely well-intended to curb Houthi aggression, could inadvertently harm those who have already suffered immensely.”

Overton further cautioned about the UK’s involvement, saying, “The UK’s decision to participate in this action could draw the country into another costly, protracted conflict in a region where the long-term strategic objectives are, at best, murky. Without a clear, sustainable plan for post-conflict stability, we risk repeating past mistakes. It’s vital that we consider not only the immediate military objectives but also the long-term implications of our involvement in Yemen. The history of Western interventions in this region is fraught with unintended consequences, and we must tread cautiously to avoid exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis.”

The implications of these developments are far-reaching, affecting not just the immediate region but also the broader international community. The coming days will be crucial in determining the trajectory of this conflict and its impact on global stability and security.