Manama, Bahrain – U.S. and British warships intercepted one of the largest missile and drone attacks launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels into the vital Red Sea shipping lane this week. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued diplomatic efforts to prevent the Gaza conflict from escalating into a full-blown regional war.
The overnight barrage of at least 18 drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile fortunately caused no damage or injuries, according to U.S. Central Command. However, the continued provocative attacks have put shipping companies on high alert, with some opting to reroute vessels around the southern tip of Africa rather than risk the pirate-infested waters of the Red Sea.
The U.S. is weighing potential strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen in retaliation for the attacks in the Red Sea, officials revealed. One defense official said the military has prepared options to hit the Iran-backed rebel group if the assaults persist. There would likely be consequences if these attacks continue as they did on Jan. 10, Blinken cautioned, adding that the Houthi actions have been aided and abetted by their allies in Tehran.
The United Nations Security Council responded by unanimously approving a resolution condemning the attacks on commercial shipping and demanding the Houthis immediately cease such actions. The resolution also called for the release of a captured merchant ship, the Galaxy Leader, and its crew. Algeria, China, Mozambique and Russia abstained from voting.
Blinken is currently on a tour of the Middle East focused on bringing Israel, Arab nations and the Palestinians together to contain the Gaza crisis and prevent it from metastasizing into a full-scale regional conflagration. However, the ongoing provocations by the Houthis are complicating his shuttle diplomacy efforts.
Speaking in Bahrain on Jan. 11, Blinken discussed with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa joint efforts to secure a lasting peace in Gaza, while reaffirming their commitment to freedom of navigation in light of the Houthi attacks. As a member of the U.S.-led Red Sea coalition created specifically to safeguard shipping through the region’s busiest maritime lanes, Bahrain has a vested interest in ending the attacks.
“We’re determined…that we not see escalation, that we don’t have the conflict spread, and we’ve made that very clear,” Blinken said. “But, of course, if our personnel, if our forces are threatened or attacked, we’ll take appropriate steps. We’ll respond.”
Diverting ships away from the Red Sea is causing delays of up to 40 days, according to Lars Jensen, chief executive of Danish maritime consultancy Vespucci Maritime. Danish shipper A.P. Moller-Maersk has already rerouted its vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, adding thousands of miles and increased fuel costs to each journey.
Jensen said the cancellation of regular Red Sea services by French shipper CMA CGM could cost the Suez Canal authorities up to $40 million per week in lost revenue. The canal typically earns around $170 million a week in transit fees.
The Houthis initially fired missiles at targets in Israel after the Gaza offensive began in October 2023, but later switched focus after failing to penetrate Israel’s air defenses. Their prime targets now appear to be international shipping lanes, including the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait linking the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The roots of the current violence trace back to the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in late 2014. The Iran-backed rebels pushed the internationally recognized government into exile soon after, prompting Saudi Arabia to form a military coalition to try and restore the ousted leadership. Despite over eight years of devastating conflict, the stubborn Houthis still control much of northern Yemen, including the traditional capital.
More than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched major air strikes on Oct. 7, according to Palestinian health officials. The initial Israeli bombing runs were in response to deadly attacks a day earlier in southern Israel, which saw militants kill over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and take more than 240 hostage.
An Israeli delegation traveled to Egypt this week to revive stalled talks on freeing the remaining captives held in Gaza. Israel believes at least 132 hostages are still being detained there by Hamas.
Blinken’s trip marks his fourth visit to the region since the violence erupted in October 2023. A major goal is promoting a U.S. plan for a unified Palestinian government overseeing both the West Bank and Gaza after years of bitter division. He met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Jan. 11 to follow up on this initiative.
According to Blinken, the two leaders discussed reforming and reinvigorating the Palestinian Authority so it can effectively administer Gaza in coordination with the West Bank under centralized Palestinian leadership. “We talked as well about the importance of reforming the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian governance, so that it can effectively take responsibility for Gaza…so that Gaza and the West Bank can be reunited under a Palestinian leadership,” he said.
Blinken added that Abbas seemed fully engaged on efforts with the U.S. and regional partners to move the unity government plan forward. However, Palestinian and Egyptian officials briefed on the meeting said the exchange was at times tense, with Abbas remaining adamant that a ceasefire in Gaza must come before any revamping of the Palestinian Authority.
The aging Abbas, now 88, has publicly indicated support for changes to the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-governance in the West Bank. Yet behind the scenes, Egyptian officials say he will resist relinquishing any significant power or control. The Palestinian Authority ran both the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s until losing control of Gaza to Hamas in violent clashes in 2007. The Islamist militant group has remained the de facto authority there ever since.
American diplomats were hoping a subsequent Jan. 11 gathering in the Jordanian city of Aqaba between Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi would help convince the Palestinian leader to accept modifications to the Palestinian Authority. Specific ideas include Abba giving up some authority or appointing fresh faces to leadership positions.
According to a Palestinian official, the trilateral meeting focused mainly on ensuring the Palestinian Authority and its leaders have an integral role in administering Gaza during any post-war transition period. The three leaders later released a joint statement calling for a comprehensive Gaza ceasefire and rejecting any efforts to permanently resettle Palestinians outside the narrow coastal enclave.
Some Israeli far-right politicians have suggested that Gazans should leave the territory entirely with Jews moving back in to rebuild settlements, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated clearly that Israel has no plans to reoccupy Gaza or forcibly remove Palestinians.
With Blinken determined to contain the violence and keep it from spreading, the continued Houthi attacks on commercial shipping present a wild card that could potentially derail the entire diplomatic push. The U.S. and its allies have warned the rebel group that additional assaults would carry consequences, prompting the Houthis to relocate and fortify some military assets in anticipation of possible American airstrikes.
“If these attacks continue, as they did yesterday, there will be consequences,” Blinken reiterated on Jan. 11. He added that the support Iran provides the Houthis, including assistance with the Red Sea attacks, needs to end as it is not in Tehran’s interests to see the conflict expand.
So as Blinken works to unite squabbling factions and stabilize Gaza, while promoting a Palestinian unity government, the Houthis seem intent on stoking turmoil. But the U.S. insists it will not allow the rebel group to torpedo the delicate diplomatic efforts underway. Officials say any further threats to U.S. forces or interests would elicit a firm response. For now, Blinken continues his shuttle diplomacy while military planners prepare contingency options to decisively deter Houthi aggression.