Houthi Rebels Launch Attacks in Red Sea
On Sunday, December 3rd, multiple ships sailing in the Red Sea came under attack by ballistic missiles and drones fired from Houthi rebel-controlled areas in Yemen. According to a statement from the US military’s Central Command, among the ships targeted was the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney. The attacks represent a concerning escalation of maritime attacks linked to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza’s ruling militant group Hamas.
The Red Sea Assault: A Timeline The coordinated assault began around 9:15am local time, when Houthi rebels launched a ballistic missile from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, which they have controlled since 2014. The target was the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer. Although the missile landed in close proximity, the ship itself was not struck.
According to the Central Command statement, the USS Carney detected this missile launch and responded by shooting down an armed drone headed towards it. It’s unclear whether the warship itself was the intended target.
About half an hour later, the Unity Explorer suffered a direct hit by another missile fired from the rebel-held territory. The Carney was sailing to its aid when it had to shoot down yet another drone approaching its position. Luckily, the damage to Unity Explorer was minor and no injuries were reported among its international crew.
Two other commercial cargo ships were also impacted – the Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier Number 9 and the Sophie II. The former sustained some damage but similarly avoided any casualties. Meanwhile, the Sophie II appeared to emerge unscathed.
Another drone was destroyed by the USS Carney’s defensive countermeasures at approximately 4:30pm local time, while it sailed to assist the crew of the Sophie II.
Implications and Context
While the Houthis have targeted commercial and military ships in the Red Sea before as part of their seven-year insurgency against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Sunday’s combined sea and air raid represents a worrying development.
Central Command vows an “appropriate response,” stating that although the attacks were launched from Yemen, they were “enabled by Iran” – Saudi Arabia’s powerful regional rival that backs the Houthi movement. However, neither the US nor Israel, longtime foes of Iran, have announced any specific retaliatory plans yet.
The shipping attacks come on the heels of a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, after more than a week of devastating airstrikes. While major hostilities have been paused for now, tensions remain sky-high as the risk of further escalation looms large.
Houthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree hailed the maritime raids as heroic acts of retaliation against Israeli aggression in Gaza. He specifically cited the Unity Explorer’s alleged ties to Israeli shipping magnate Abraham Ungar. However, Israeli officials have refused to confirm or deny any links between the affected vessels and their country.
Growing Risks to Red Sea Shipping
The Red Sea is a vital commercial shipping route between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Around 10% of global trade traverses its waters every year. With the Israel-Hamas conflict threatening to grow into a regional proxy war – potentially involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as the Palestinians – commercial vessels risk becoming collateral damage as they sail by the Arabian Peninsula.
Sunday’s attacks have already impacted firms from Panama, Japan, and the UK – further spooking maritime insurers and shippers concerned about the increasing risks. Some may consider avoiding the Red Sea altogether and opt for the longer route around the southern tip of Africa instead.
While no oil tankers were affected this time, both Saudi Arabia and arch-foe Iran depend heavily on unhindered passage through the Red Sea to export their lucrative crude cargoes to Asia and Europe.
Any disruption caused in this strategically vital waterway risks further rattling energy markets and hurting fragile post-pandemic economic recoveries across the globe.
In targeting a US warship along with multiple international merchant vessels, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have dangerously raised the stakes in the Red Sea. Even if the missile and drone strikes served largely symbolic purposes to rally domestic support and display solidarity with Hamas, they set an unnerving precedent.
The attacks will inevitably exacerbate existing maritime security concerns related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. With hostilities recently reigniting in Gaza, Yemen’s civil war still raging, and antagonism between regional heavyweights like Iran and Saudi Arabia simmering – tensions threaten to boil over and engulf one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes.
While no major drive towards de-escalation seems imminent, all actors with interests in the Red Sea will closely watch the American and Israeli response to determine their next moves. Restraint is required to avoid a uncontrolled spiral of retaliatory attacks that primarily jeopardizes innocent merchant crews and imperils the fragile global economy.