Shipping Attacks Push US and Allies to Mideast Crunch Point

January 11, 2024

© Vladimir Bartel / Adobe Stock
© Vladimir Bartel / Adobe Stock

When the United States and 11 allies published a joint statement last week calling for an end to Houthi attacks from Yemen on Red Sea shipping, they hoped the implicit threat of force might at least reduce the intensity of fire on foreign vessels.

Instead, Wednesday saw the largest single attack yet on foreign vessels, according to Western defence officials, launched seven days after the joint statement. It appeared a clear attempt to call the West's bluff, just as other tensions across the Middle East appear to be on the rise.

In Iraq and Syria, U.S. forces have also been increasingly attacked in the aftermath of Israel’s now three-month-old offensive into Gaza, launched in response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. In Iraq – where the United States has responded to some of these attacks by striking Iran-backed groups also allied to the Iraqi military – that has already prompted the government in Baghdad to call for U.S. forces to leave, something the United States says it will not do.

Strains are also rising in Lebanon, where Israel has conducted its own strikes against Hezbollah leaders amid periodic cross-border shelling.

The key driver of these tensions, of course, remains the war in Gaza, with the United States keen to persuade Israel to pull back its full-scale offensive to avoid a worsening humanitarian crisis and regional escalation – but this looks increasingly unlikely. Last week, Israeli Defence Forces spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said fighting in Gaza would likely continue during the current year.

As with its failure to deter attacks on shipping or persuade Iraq to drop its public calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal, the Biden administration’s increasingly public failures to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to moderate its approach points to an increasingly awkward regional dynamic for the United States in particular.

Visiting Bahrain on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated what U.S. officials say has been a top priority since Oct. 7 - stopping the Gaza war from escalating into a wider regional conflict. But he also warned there would be unspecified “consequences” of the attacks on shipping, which he said were conducted with both Iranian weaponry and intelligence support.

Britain made a similar warning, with Defence Secretary Grant Shapps telling reporters to “watch this space”. That, most analysts believe, suggests U.S. and NATO allies are likely moving closer to conducting strikes within Yemen itself, most likely targeting control centres and weapons stocks.

To what extent that will reduce the threat to shipping remains an open question. Part of that will depend on to what extent the Houthis are calling the shots, as well as how Iran reacts. One of the factors U.S. and other allied planners will be considering is to what extent they might wish to target Iranian state assets within Yemen if they strike, particularly those linked to Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Complex regional dynamic
How to handle the IRGC has been a dilemma for the United States and allies in the region for decades, particularly since the early years of the occupation of Iraq following the 2003 invasion. The group orchestrated thousands of attacks against U.S. and other occupying forces, deepening its influence in the country through Shi'ite militias which then allied with the United States and others against Islamic State.

Islamic State, while weakened, remains active in the region, claiming responsibility for two bombings in Iran this week that killed almost 200 people, and which authorities in Tehran blamed almost immediately on the United States.

That all helps contribute to what is arguably the most complex Middle Eastern regional dynamic the United States has ever faced. In Syria, both the Kremlin and Tehran remain firmly entrenched behind Bashar al-Assad’s government, while in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – until recently solid U.S. allies – are now walking a more complex path simultaneously engaging with China, Russia and the West.

In January 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump tore up what had been the allied model for dealing with Tehran when he ordered the assassination by drone of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport. That worsened relations between Washington and the government in Baghdad, prompting a vote in the Iraqi parliament to evict U.S. troops that again never happened.

The Biden administration would likely not have made that call, but it too has on occasion been willing to take unilateral action. The U.S. launched air strikes against Iranian-linked groups in Iraq late last year in response to attacks on U.S. troops, and earlier this month killed Iran-backed militia leader Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari in another Baghdad drone strike.

Such unilateral U.S. actions, however, come with a cost – in that case, particularly to the relationship with the Iraqi government. Even when it came to the relatively uncontroversial Prosperity Guardian mission to protect international Red Sea shipping, the United States has struggled to get even some of its traditional NATO and Middle East allies on board.

That reticence – non-participants include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and France – has likely been supercharged by the backlash against Israel’s actions in Gaza, which the United States is widely seen as having enabled if not encouraged. Multiple regional and European nations have also long been sceptical of U.S. warnings and efforts to stop Tehran’s nuclear programme, including sanctions and covert actions.

The longer Israel’s Gaza offensive lasts, the worse the potential damage to some of those relationships. Regardless of that, relatively few nations are likely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of finding themselves trapped alongside the United States in an unexpected wider declared or undeclared war against Iran, regardless of the disruption the Houthis might be bringing.

Red Sea conundrum 
The options might be complex, but the fundamental problem facing the United States in the Middle East and globally is relatively simple. Every adversary has a fundamental interest in Washington looking weak, while even many allies – including Israel, the Gulf states and other Arab partners – seek to retain U.S. support, weapons and protection while maximising their freedom to manoeuvre.

The United States, for its part, wants to stand strong behind both its allies and the global system – particularly free shipping and trade – and constrain the ability of disruptive players, particularly Iran, to act. Many in Washington are concerned that failing to do so will embolden other potential U.S. foes, particularly prompting China to believe that it can get away with an invasion of Taiwan.

For now, the consensus among most analysts and Western officials appears to be that Hamas planned its offensive against Israel largely or entirely without involving any other major players, including Iran, likely because they wanted to keep it secret.

Tehran, Moscow and Beijing, however, now appear to be happily taking advantage of the aftermath. Chinese naval forces in the Gulf of Aden continue to run their own convoys through the region entirely separately from the Prosperity Guardian mission, with some analysts suggesting the Houthis are proving more reluctant to attack Chinese and other shipping compared to vessels with Western and particularly Israeli links.

How true that is is far from clear – several vessels with Hong Kong ownership or links have been attacked, while U.S. officials say Chinese naval vessels have done nothing to respond to distress calls from vessels struck or seized.

The Chinese convoys, however, have appeared largely unmolested.

Should the United States and allies choose to strike Yemen, they will likely also step up efforts to protect shipping in the area. Some shipowners passing through the region, however, may choose to do whatever they can to remain unaffected – U.S. officials have pointedly refused to comment on some firms already striking deals and paying protection money to the Houthis.

As long as attacks continue, however, the United States is likely to find itself pushed further towards launching yet another Mideast intervention, even if limited in nature. It is an option the Biden administration is desperate to avoid, particularly in an election year, but the avenues to do so may be running out.

(Reuters - Editing by Nick Macfie)

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