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Houthi Rebels Continue to Threaten Commercial Shipping in Red Sea, Gulf of Aden: EU Operation Chief

HomeWARHouthi Rebels Continue to Threaten Commercial Shipping in Red Sea, Gulf of...

In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English, Rear Admiral Vasileios Gryparis, the commanding officer overseeing the European Union’s Operation Aspides, sounded the alarm about the ongoing threats posed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels to merchant vessels navigating the perilous waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Despite the deployment of the EU’s naval force in the volatile region, the threat level remains undiminished since the operation’s launch on February 19, 2024, Gryparis revealed.

Aspides, a defensive maritime security mission, was initiated in response to a surge in drone and missile attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis on commercial, merchant, and military ships in the Red Sea since November 2023. The Houthis have claimed that their campaign of aggression is a show of solidarity with Palestinians following the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which came in retaliation for a Hamas attack on October 7th.

Deterring Houthi Aggression: A Formidable Challenge

According to Rear Admiral Gryparis, Aspides has engaged and deterred several Houthi attacks since its deployment in the region. With a one-year mandate, the mission’s headquarters is based in Greece, and 19 EU nations have contributed four naval frigates and over 800 personnel to the operation at sea.

“During the almost eight weeks of the operation, Aspides has achieved the close protection of 79 merchant vessels, contributing to the restoration of confidence in the shipping industry to return to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal trading routes,” Gryparis stated.

The operation commander revealed that the task force has shot down at least nine unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), destroyed an unmanned surface vessel (USV), and intercepted four anti-ship ballistic missiles. The Houthis’ use of anti-ship ballistic missiles is an unprecedented development in modern history, according to US officials.

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Protecting Vital Shipping Lanes: A Strategic Imperative

Gryparis explained that the mission has been able to protect 100 percent of all requests made by shipping companies to the Maritime Security Center, which acts as a clearing house. The operation gives priority to shipping in the interest of the EU and its member states, including vessels carrying an EU member state flag, crews of their nationality, or those directed to an EU member state, regardless of their flag.

“If there would be a need to make choices, the Force Commander is in charge of deciding how to organize the protection of merchant vessels and prioritize accordingly based on the situation in the area at that point in time and location of our assets,” Gryparis said.

The Houthi attacks have disrupted global shipping through the Suez Canal, forcing firms to reroute to longer and more expensive journeys around the southern tip of the African continent. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell stated that redirecting maritime traffic around the Cape of Good Hope has extended the traveling journey by 10 to 14 days per journey, while also increasing expenses and insurance shipping costs.

No Militarization of the Red Sea: A Defensive Mandate

EU Spokesperson Peter Stano clarified that the EU has no intention of militarizing the Red Sea, and Aspides is a defensive operation aimed at reinstating freedom of navigation and safety for commercial traffic in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which are currently being undermined by the illegal actions of the Houthis, condemned by the UN and the wider international community.

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Borrell has repeatedly emphasized that the mission does not have plans to be involved in attacks on Yemeni soil and that it only enjoys a defensive mandate to protect ships. Any change to this mandate would require a decision by the EU member states, and no such discussion is ongoing or in the making.

Coordination with Operation Prosperity Guardian: A Delicate Balance

The deteriorating situation in the Red Sea prompted the US, alongside Britain and other countries, to launch Operation Prosperity Guardian in January. While this US-led operation has been engaged in not only deterring Houthi threats but also striking Houthi targets in Yemen in self-defense, Gryparis stated that Aspides has a distinct mandate from the actions of the US, UK, and other partners in the region.

“Our operation has a defensive mandate. It has a clear distinct mandate from the actions of the US, UK and other partners in the region,” Gryparis said, adding that Aspides can be “seen as complementary” to Prosperity Guardian, and coordination is ongoing to avoid any incidents of friendly fire.

A US military official previously told Al Arabiya English that the two sides were routinely meeting and exchanging information on their whereabouts and operations, underscoring the delicate balance required to maintain operational coordination while adhering to their respective mandates.

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The Future of Aspides: A Decision for EU Member States

The extension of Aspides’ mandate after its one-year mark will be determined by the EU member states after evaluating the situation in the region. Stano, the EU Spokesperson, explained that it is not possible to evaluate now what the situation will be in a year’s time, but he recalled what was already stated by the High Representative during the Aspides press conference: “We hope it will be as short as possible.”

As the threat from the Houthi rebels persists, the EU’s naval force remains steadfast in its mission to protect vital shipping lanes and restore confidence in the region’s maritime trade routes. However, the ultimate decision on the operation’s future lies with the EU member states, who will have to weigh the evolving security landscape and the potential risks to regional stability.

The situation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden remains fluid, with the Houthi rebels seemingly undeterred in their attempts to disrupt commercial shipping and assert their influence in the strategic waterways. As the international community grapples with this complex challenge, the EU’s Operation Aspides stands as a bulwark against the threats posed by the Iran-backed rebels, safeguarding the freedom of navigation and the global supply chains that depend on it.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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