U.S. aircraft carrier captain playfully counters Houthi’s false online claims of hitting his ship

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower may be one of the oldest aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, but it’s still fighting — despite repeated false claims by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The Houthis and social media accounts supporting them repeatedly have falsely claimed they hit or even sank the carrier in the Red Sea. The carrier leads the U.S. response to the rebels’ targeting of commercial vessels and warships in the crucial waterway — attacks the Houthis say are aimed at bringing an end to the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

The Eisenhower’s leader, Capt. Christopher “Chowdah” Hill, is creatively striking back on social media to counter the misinformation — and boost the morale of the ship’s 5,000 personnel — as the Navy faces its most intense combat since World War II.

“I think it’s been about two or three times in the past six months we’ve allegedly been sunk, which we have not been,” Captain Hill told The Associated Press during a recent visit to the carrier. “It is almost comical at this point. They’re attempting to maybe inspire themselves through misinformation, but it doesn’t work on us.”

The visit by two AP journalists and others to the Eisenhower represents part of the effort the Navy has made to try to counter the Houthi claims. While on board for about a day and a half, journalists escorted by sailors crisscrossed the nuclear-powered ship’s 1,092-foot (332-meter) length. AP journalists also repeatedly circled the Eisenhower from the air in a Seahawk helicopter.

Other than rust on its side from the hot, humid Red Sea air and water apparently leaking from a pipe in a dining room, the ship appeared no worse for wear. Its flight deck bore no blast damage or gaping holes, just the stink of jet fuel, pooled puddles of oily water and the scream of engines before its F/A-18 fighter jets took flight.

The other half of the information warfare effort has been Captain Hill himself, a native of Quincy, Massachusetts, something noticeable immediately in his South Boston accent. While even the secretive leader of the Houthis, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, has name-dropped the carrier in speeches while making false claims about the vessel, Captain Hill has offered ceaselessly positive messages online about his sailors on board.

Countering Houthi disinformation

Videos of flight operations from the bridge and images of sailors eating cookies in the captain’s chair are constant staple. After one false Houthi claim, Captain Hill responded by posting images of cinnamon rolls and muffins in the bakery on board the Eisenhower — a subtle jab at the claims.

“The whole intent of the social media outreach was to connect with families, to bring them closer to the ship,” Captain Hill said. “So if I can post pictures of sons and daughters, husbands and wives out here, or even fathers and mothers, get it out there, it just kind of brings the family closer to us. And again, that’s our support network. But it also took on another role because everyone else was watching to see what we’re doing.”

Then there’s the “Star Wars” memes and images of Captain Demo, the Labrador-golden retriever mix who roams the ship as a support animal for sailors. And as far as the Houthi forces watching his postings, Captain Hill takes special pleasure in writing about “Taco Tuesday” on the ship.

“We’re going to celebrate ‘Taco Tuesdays’ because it’s my absolute favorite day of the week. That will never end,” the captain said. “If you call that an information warfare campaign, you can. It’s just who I am, you know, at the end of the day.”

Maintaining morale amid prolonged deployment:

But morale remains a deep concern for Captain Hill and other leaders on board the ship. The Eisenhower and its allied ships have gotten just one short port call during the eight-month rotation so far to Greece. The carrier also has been the most-deployed carrier among the entire U.S. fleet over the last five years, according to an analysis by the U.S. Naval Institute’s news service.

One sailor, Lt. Joseph Hirl from Raleigh, North Carolina, wore a patch reading: “Go Navy, Beat Houthis.” While that’s a play on the classic call for the annual Army-Navy football game, the naval flight officer stressed that he knew the combat was deadly serious.

“It’s pretty much the day-in, day-out stress of knowing that we are being shot at definitely gives a realism to the whole experience that this is not a normal deployment,” Captain Hill said.

Munitions and combat readiness

Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro speaks during a naturalization ceremony aboard the USS Bataan during Fleet Week Miami at Port Miami on  May 7, 2024, in Miami.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro speaks during a naturalization ceremony aboard the USS Bataan during Fleet Week Miami at Port Miami on May 7, 2024, in Miami.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Meanwhile, munitions also remain a concern. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told the U.S. Senate‘s Armed Services Committee in May the Navy had spent at least $1 billion in armaments to fight in the Red Sea. Every leader on board the Eisenhower that the AP spoke to acknowledged the Navy was trying to use the right weapon against the Houthis, whose asymmetrical warfare sees them use far cheaper munitions.

“My sailors, my ships are priceless — that’s not a calculus I want a captain to have,” said Capt. David Wroe, the commodore overseeing the guided missile destroyers escorting the Eisenhower. “Now, using the appropriate effect weapon system on the appropriate threat to preserve magazine depth, to have more missiles, is certainly a germane tactical question.”

For now, the Eisenhower continues its patrol along with the , a cruiser, and two destroyers, the USS Gravely and the USS Mason. It’s been extended twice already and there’s always the chance it could happen again. But Captain Hill said his sailors remained ready to fight and he remained ready to continue to captain in his style.

“I came to a revelation at some point in my career that, one of the things that all humans require is to be loved and valued,” Captain Hill said. “So I shouldn’t be afraid, as a leader, to try to love and value everybody, and also to expect other leaders that I’m responsible for to love and value their sailors.”

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Yemen’s Houthi rebels detain 11 UN local staff members

It’s unclear what exactly sparked the detentions. Former US embassy employees were detained in 2021 by the Houthis and have not been released.

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Eleven Yemeni employees of United Nations agencies have been detained by Yemen’s Houthi rebels under unclear circumstances, authorities said on Friday, as the rebels face increasing financial pressure and airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition. Others working for aid groups also have been taken.

The detentions come as the Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital nearly a decade ago and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since shortly after, have been targeting shipping throughout the Red Sea corridor over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

But while gaining more attention internationally, the secretive group has cracked down at dissent at home, includingrecently sentencing 44 people to death.

U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric in New York acknowledged 11 U.N. staffers had been taken.

“We are very concerned about these developments, and we’re actively seeking clarification from the Houthi de facto authorities regarding the circumstances of these detentions and most importantly, to ensure the immediate access to those U.N. personnel,” he told journalists. “So I can further tell you that we’re pursuing all available channels to secure the safe and unconditional release of all of them as rapidly as possible.”

Of the 11, the U.N. said nine are men and two are women. Six work for the U.N.’s human rights agency, while one apiece work for its special envoy’s office, its development arm, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNESCO.

The Mayyun Organisation for Human Rights, which also reported U.N. staffers were held, named other aid groups whose employees were detained by the Houthis across four provinces that the Houthis hold — Amran, Hodeida, Saada and Saana.

“We condemn in the strongest terms this dangerous escalation, which constitutes a violation of the privileges and immunities of United Nations employees granted to them under international law, and we consider it to be oppressive, totalitarian, blackmailing practices to obtain political and economic gains,” the organization said in a statement.

Save the Children, told the AP that it was “concerned of the whereabouts of one of our staff members in Yemen and doing everything we can to ensure his safety and well-being.” The group declined to elaborate.

CARE International also said one of its staffers had been detained without being given a reason.

“We are concerned about our colleague’s safety and are working to get more information in the coming hours and days,” said Sulafah al-Shami, a CARE spokeswoman. “Until then, we have extended our support to the family and share their hope for his speedy release.”

Other groups also are believed to have staff who were taken as well, though they did not acknowledge it publicly.

Activists, lawyers and others also began an open online letter, calling on the Houthis to immediately release those detained, because if they don’t, it “helps isolate the country from the world.”

Human Rights Watch, quoting family members of those detained, said that “Houthi authorities have not revealed the locations of the people they detained or allowed them to communicate with their employers or families.”

“The Houthis should immediately release any U.N. employees and workers for other independent groups they have detained because of their human rights and humanitarian work and stop arbitrarily detaining and forcibly disappearing people,” Human Rights Watch researcher Niku Jafarnia said.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their affiliated media organisations didn’t discuss the detentions, though military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree claimed attacks on Friday night on ships that hadn’t been reported damaged.

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the Houthis launched four anti-ship ballistic missiles over the last day that caused no damage. Separately, U.S. forces destroyed two missiles, five drones and one patrol boat, it said, something not acknowledged by the rebels.

The Iranian-backed rebels also reported new U.S.-led airstrikes on Friday hitting around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida and later in the capital, Sanaa. Several hit Hodeida’s airport, the Houthi-controlled SABA news agency said, where the rebels are believed to have launched attacks previously targeting shipping in the region.

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It’s unclear what exactly sparked the detentions. Former employees of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which shuttered in 2015, have also been detained and held by the Houthis.

However, it comes as the Houthis have faced issues with having enough currency to support the economy in areas they hold — something signalled by their move to introduce a new coin into the Yemeni currency, the riyal. Yemen’s exiled government in Aden and other nations criticised the move, saying the Houthis are turning to counterfeiting.

Aden authorities also have demanded all banks move their headquarters there as a means to stop the worst slide ever in the riyal’s value and re-exert their control over the economy.

“Internal tensions and conflicts could spiral out of control and lead Yemen into complete economic collapse,” warned Yemeni journalist Mohammed Ali Thamer in an analysis published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bloomberg separately reported on Thursday that the U.S. planned to further increase economic pressure on the Houthis by blocking their revenue sources, including a planned 1.3 billion euro Saudi payment to cover salaries for government employees in rebel-held territory.

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The war in Yemen has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more. The Houthis’ attacks on shipping have helped deflect attention from their problems at home and the stalemated war. But they’ve faced increasing casualties and damage from U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the group for months now.

Thousands have been imprisoned by the Houthis during the war. An AP investigation found some detainees were scorched with acid, forced to hang from their wrists for weeks at a time or were beaten with batons. Meanwhile, the Houthis have employed child soldiers and indiscriminately laid mines in the conflict.

The Houthis previously have detained four other U.N. staffers — two in 2021 and another two in 2023. The U.N.’s human rights agency in 2023 called those detentions a “profoundly alarming situation as it reveals a complete disregard for the rule of law.”

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UK ‘bases of death’ see controversy amid Middle East conflict

Activists claim the UK and US use Cyprus as an “unsinkable warship” as recent conflicts in the Middle East spark renewed controversy over British military bases on the Mediterranean island.

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“We don’t want our island to be part of these wars,” Athina Kariati, a member of United for Palestine in Cyprus, told Euronews. “They are not for democracy, peace or justice.”

The Cypriot activist is part of a movement protesting against UK bases on the Mediterranean island, which are reportedly playing a significant role in recent conflicts in the Middle East.

“Western powers use Cyprus as an unsinkable warship,” she said. “This cannot continue.”

Numerous reports, including by DeclassifiedUK and Haaretz, claim UK and US forces are supporting Israel’s catastrophic offensive in Gaza with weapons and intelligence from Akrotiri and Dhekelia in southern Cyprus. 

The UK government has repeatedly denied this, saying that no Royal Air Force (RAF) flights to Israel have transported lethal cargo. 

RAF Akrotiri – a 40-minute flight from Tel Aviv – was also widely reported as the staging post for airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen in January, prompting angry crowds to gather outside the facility and chant “out with the bases of death.”

Kept by the UK after Cyprus won independence from its colonial rule several decades ago, the two sites – which cover 3% of the country – have remained in the background for decades. 

But recent events in the Middle East have galvanised local groups against them.

‘Leftover from colonialism’

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on 7 October, they have become increasingly aware of a “daily increase” in flights from Akrotiri and an alleged ramped-up military presence there.

Activist Kariati says she opposes Cyprus being used to support Israeli attacks on Palestinians because of her country’s own experience of foreign interference and occupation.

“We do know what invasion means,” she told Euronews. “The memory is very fresh… The apartheid and settler genocide that is taking place in Gaza is very close to what we experienced [in Cyprus].”

“We don’t want that to happen to anybody,” Kariati added.

Following a prolonged period of ethnic tensions, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, leading to its division into the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The conflict resulted in widespread death, violence and displacement on both sides.

Cypriot activists also claim UK and US actions risk making Cyprus itself a target, with their strikes in Yemen having raised fears of regional escalation.

“People are afraid of retaliation,” says Kariati. “This is one reason some join the struggle against the bases.”

“Can we say Cyprus is safe? I am not sure.”

The EU’s most easterly state has not experienced violent overspill from the Middle East – bar a stray Syrian anti-aircraft missile that hit the north in 2019. Still, concerns are rising that the Israel Hamas war could engulf the wider region. 

In a statement sent to Euronews, a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said: “British Forces Cyprus plays a vital role in supporting humanitarian and disaster relief operations, such as pursuing humanitarian maritime routes to move aid into Gaza.

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“The only intelligence support provided to Israel has been specifically through the use of unarmed RAF aircraft to locate hostages_”  they said about the 240 people taken hostage by Palestinian militants, after their deadly 7 October assault on southern Israel.

“The Sovereign Base Areas make a major contribution to the security and stability of Europe and the wider region. The Republic of Cyprus is a trusted and valuable partner and the SBAs support joint UK-Cyprus efforts on many shared challenges, including participation in Cyprus’ civilian evacuation operations,” the statement continued. 

The UK MoD pointed to its humanitarian activity at the bases, detailing that British Forces Cyprus support efforts to ensure aid is provided to all those who are suffering as a result of the conflict in Gaza.

‘They don’t want to break relationships’

When Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1960, London struck a deal with Turkey, Greece and Cypriot community leaders. The agreement outlined that Akrotiri and Dhekelia would both remain under British jurisdiction as sovereign territories. They operate beyond the reach of Cypriot authorities. 

Although the UK is not ‘controlling’ the country, Kariati claimed the bases are seen as “colonial” by many on the island.

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“Can we act as we want when parts of our land are occupied and controlled by an imperialist force? ” she asked. “There are places that Cypriot people don’t have any control over.”

Cypriot officials have repeatedly said they are not involved in any military operations, with the UK not obliged to inform them about activity in the facilities under their treaty of establishment.

Yet, The Guardian has reported that the US ambassador and British high commissioner briefed the Cypriot president of imminent military action in Yemen before the first round of airstrikes in January.

Campaigners like Kariati allege the government of the Republic of Cyprus is complicit in the bloodshed in Gaza by allowing the UK and US to help Israel.

“They [the leaders] use excuses that legal reasons mean they don’t have the right to do anything. But if they wanted to, they could make a political statement that they are against the war.”

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The Cypriot government did not reply to Euronews’ request for comment.

‘New militarisation of Cyprus’

However, the UK is not the only country operating on Cypriot soil.

French aircraft use a military air base in the southeastern corner of the island, DeclassifiedUK reports the US military has increased its presence on the Mediterranean Island, though this is unconfirmed. 

Alongside being a “very strategic point on the map”, Kariati claims Western powers are interested in Cyprus because of recently discovered gas reserves.

A US firm began exploratory drilling of natural gas in 2011, despite warnings from Turkey that the move could upset peace on the island. Cyprus announced in 2017 that licenses for well drilling had been granted to Exxon Mobil, Italy’s ENI and France’s Total.

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In parallel, Israel and Cyprus created an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2011 that clarified the two countries’ rights to oil and underwater gas reservoirs. Israel, Cyprus, the United States and Greece then agreed to enhance cooperation in energy, cyber and infrastructure security in 2019. 

Kariati claims these developments helped shift support in Cyprus towards Israel, with the country outwardly backing the Palestinians through the 1980s and 90s, alongside a “new militarisation” of the island.

“The military presence on and around Cyprus is rising in number and power. It doesn’t make us feel safe in any way,” she continued.



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US and UK launch new round of strikes against Houthi sites in Yemen

The U.S. and British militaries bombed multiple targets in eight locations used by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen on Monday night, the second time the two allies have conducted coordinated retaliatory strikes on an array of the rebels’ missile-launching capabilities.

According to officials, the U.S. and U.K. used warship- and submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets to take out Houthi missile storage sites, drones and launchers. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a military operation, said Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands contributed to the mission, including with intelligence and surveillance.

In a joint statement, the six allied nations said the strikes specifically targeted a Houthi underground storage site and locations associated with the Houthis’ missile and air surveillance capabilities. They added, “Our aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea, but let us reiterate our warning to Houthi leadership: we will not hesitate to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that four Royal Air Force Typhoon jets struck “multiple targets at two military sites in the vicinity of Sanaa airfield” with precision-guided bombs. The strikes, said Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, were “aimed at degrading Houthi capabilities” and would “deal another blow to their limited stockpiles and ability to threaten global trade.”

One senior U.S. military official told reporters the strikes dropped between 25 and 30 munitions and hit multiple targets in each location, adding that the U.S. “observed good impacts and effects” at all sites, including the destruction of more advanced weapons in the underground storage facility. The official said this is the first time such advanced weapons were targeted.

The official also said fighter jets from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier conducted strikes, and other ships involved included the USS Gravely and USS Mason, both naval destroyers, and the USS Philippine Sea, a cruiser.

The joint operation comes about 10 days after U.S. and British warships and fighter jets struck more than 60 targets in 28 locations. That was the first U.S. military response to what has been a persistent campaign of Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial ships since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

The Houthis’ media office said in an online statement Monday that raids targeted Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. And Jamal Hassan, a resident from south Sanaa, told The Associated Press that two strikes landed near his home, setting off car alarms in the street. An Associated Press journalist in Sanaa also heard aircraft flying above the skies of Sanaa overnight Monday.

Al-Masirah, a Houthi-run satellite news channel, said there were raids on three areas of Sanaa: al-Dailami Air Base just north of the capital, Sarif, northeast of the city center, and al-Hafa, which is south of Sanaa.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke with President Joe Biden earlier Monday. Sunak’s office said the two leaders agreed to take “as needed, targeted military action to degrade Houthi capabilities.”

Multiple US strikes

The latest barrage of allied attacks marks the eighth time the U.S. has conducted strikes on Houthi sites since Jan. 12. And it follows an almost-daily assault on Houthi missile launchers by U.S. fighter jets and ship-based Tomahawks over the past week. The rapid response missions, which officials said go after launchers that are armed and ready to fire, demonstrate the military’s increasing ability to watch, detect and strike militant activities in Yemen.

The chaotic wave of attacks and reprisals involving the United States, its allies and foes suggests that the retaliatory strikes haven’t deterred the Houthis from their campaign against Red Sea shipping, and that the broader regional war that the U.S. has spent months trying to avoid is becoming closer to reality.

For months, the Houthis have attacked ships in the region’s waterways that they say are either linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports. They say their attacks aim to end the Israeli air-and-ground offensive in the Gaza Strip that was triggered by the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel. But any such links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue.

The U.S. and allies warned of retaliation for weeks, and the White House and a host of partner nations issued a final warning on Jan. 3 to the Houthis to cease the attacks or face potential military action.

That threat, however, had little noticeable effect. The Houthis continued to attack ships in the region, including at times appearing to target U.S. Navy and U.S.-owned ships, in addition to the wide range of commercial vessels.

Of the eight strike missions on Yemen this month, all but the two with Britain were conducted by the U.S. military alone. Five of the latest strikes were labeled self-defense to take out missiles ready to fire. The most recent, on Saturday, struck and destroyed a Houthi anti-ship missile that was aimed into the Gulf of Aden and was prepared to launch, according to Central Command.

The Biden administration has also put the Houthis back on its list of specially designated global terrorists. The sanctions that come with the formal designation are meant to sever violent extremist groups from their sources of financing, while also allowing vital humanitarian aid to continue flowing to impoverished Yemenis.

U.S. defense officials have said they believe the strikes have degraded the Houthis’ weapons and strike capabilities. But Biden and others have acknowledged that the rebels are well-equipped by Iran and are likely to continue the attacks.

The Houthis, meanwhile, have made it clear that they have no intention of scaling back their assault. In the wake of the first U.S. and British joint attack, Hussein al-Ezzi, a Houthi official in their Foreign Ministry, said, “America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression.”

Read moreHundreds of thousands protest in Yemen after US and UK strike Houthi targets

The continued harassment of the ships has driven the U.S. and international partners to take extraordinary steps to defend them through a joint mission named Operation Prosperity Guardian, in which they provide a protective umbrella for vessels traveling the critical waterway that runs from the Suez Canal down to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

About 400 commercial vessels transit the southern Red Sea at any given time. And the ongoing violence has prompted companies to reroute their ships, sending them around Africa through the Cape of Good Hope instead — a much longer and less efficient passage.

(AP)

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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.



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US military strikes another Houthi-controlled site after warning ships to avoid parts of Red Sea

The U.S. military struck another Houthi-controlled site in Yemen that it had determined was putting commercial vessels in the Red Sea at risk on January 13, a day after the U.S. and Britain launched multiple airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels.

Associated Press journalists in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, heard one loud explosion.

U.S. Central Command said the “follow-on action” early Jan. 13 local time against a Houthi radar site was conducted by the Navy destroyer USS Carney using Tomahawk land attack missiles.

The first day of strikes on Jan. 12 hit 28 locations and struck more than 60 targets. President Joe Biden had warned on Jan.12 that the Houthis could face further strikes.

The latest strike came after the U.S. Navy warned American-flagged vessels to steer clear of areas around Yemen in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for the next 72 hours after the initial airstrikes. The warning came as Yemen’s Houthis vowed fierce retaliation, further raising the prospect of a wider conflict in a region already beset by Israel’s war in Gaza.

U.S. military and White House officials said they expected the Houthis to try to strike back.

We respond to the Houthis, says Biden

The U.S.-led bombardment — launched in response to a recent campaign of drone and missile attacks on commercial ships in the vital Red Sea — killed at least five people and wounded six, the Houthis said. The U.S. said the strikes, in two waves, took aim at targets in 28 different locations across Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

“We will make sure that we respond to the Houthis if they continue this outrageous behaviour along with our allies,” Biden told reporters during a stop in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Asked if he believes the Houthis are a terrorist group, Biden responded, “I think they are.” The president in a later exchange with reporters during a stop in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said whether the Houthis are redesignated as such was “irrelevant.”

Biden also pushed back against some lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, who said he should have sought congressional authorization before carrying out the strikes.“They’re wrong, and I sent up this morning when the strikes occurred exactly what happened,” Biden said.

The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the military action from the hospital where he is recovering from complications following prostate cancer surgery.

The White House said in November that it was considering redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation after they began their targeting of civilian vessels. The administration formally delisted the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organisation” and “specially designated global terrorists” in 2021, undoing a move by President Donald Trump.

Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday’s U.S. strikes were largely in low-populated areas, and the number of those killed would not be high. He said the strikes hit weapons, radar and targeting sites, including in remote mountain areas.

Focus on Yemen’s civil war

As the bombing lit the predawn sky over multiple sites held by the Iranian-backed rebels, it forced the world to again focus on Yemen’s yearslong war, which began when the Houthis seized the country’s capital.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea, saying they were avenging Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperilling shipping in a key route for global trade and energy shipments.

The Houthis’ military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, said in a recorded address that the U.S. strikes would “not go unanswered or unpunished.”

Though the Biden administration and its allies have tried to calm tensions in West Asia for weeks and prevent any wider conflict, the strikes threatened to ignite one.

Saudi Arabia — which supports the government-in-exile that the Houthis are fighting — quickly sought to distance itself from the attacks as it seeks to maintain a delicate détente with Iran and a cease-fire it has in Yemen. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen has killed more than 1,50,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more.

It remained unclear how extensive the damage was from Friday’s strikes, though the Houthis said at least five sites, including airfields, had been attacked. The White House said the U.S. military was still assessing the extent the militants’ capabilities might have been degraded.

U.S. Air Forces Central Command said the strikes focused on the Houthi’s command and control nodes, munition depots, launching systems, production facilities and air defense radar systems. The strikes involved more than 150 precision-guided munitions including air-launched missiles by F/A-18 Super Hornets based on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Tomahawk missiles from the Navy destroyers USS Gravely and USS Mason, the Navy cruiser USS Philippine Sea, and a U.S. submarine.

The United Kingdom said strikes hit a site in Bani allegedly used by the Houthis to launch drones and an airfield in Abbs used to launch cruise missiles and drones.

In a separate development, Iran released footage of its seizure of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that once had been at the center of a dispute between Tehran and Washington.

In the footage, a helicopter hovers over the deck of the St. Nikolas. Iran’s navy seized the vessel Thursday. The vessel had been known earlier as the Suez Rajan. The U.S. seized 1 million barrels of sanctioned Iranian oil off the vessel last year.

In Yemen, Hussein al-Ezzi, a Houthi official in their Foreign Ministry, said, “America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression.”

The Red Sea route is a crucial waterway, and attacks there have caused severe disruptions to global trade. Benchmark Brent crude oil traded up some 4% Friday at over $80 a barrel.

Tesla, meanwhile, said it would temporarily halt most production at its German factory because of attacks in the Red Sea.

In Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold in northwest Yemen, hundreds gathered for a rally on Jan. 12, denouncing the U.S. and Israel. Another drew thousands in Sanaa, the capital.

Houthis now control territory that is home to some two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 34 million. War and misgovernment have made Yemen one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and the World Food Programme considers the vast majority of Yemen’s people as food-insecure.

Yemen has been targeted by U.S. military action over the last four American presidencies. A campaign of drone strikes began under President George W. Bush to target the local affiliate of al-Qaida, attacks that have continued under the Biden administration. Meanwhile, the U.S. has launched raids and other military operations amid the ongoing war in Yemen.

That war began when the Houthis swept into Sanaa in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, launched a war to back Yemen’s exiled government in 2015, quickly morphing the conflict into a regional confrontation as Iran backed the Houthis with weapons and other support.

The conflict, however, has slowed as the Houthis maintain their grip on the territory they hold. In March, Saudi Arabia reached a Chinese-mediated deal to restart relations with Iran in hopes of ultimately withdrawing from the war.

Attacks fuel “insecurity and instability”

Iran condemned Friday’s attack in a statement from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani. “Arbitrary attacks will have no result other than fueling insecurity and instability in the region,” he said.

At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council late on Jan. 12, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the U.S., U.K. and allies of “blatant armed aggression” against Yemen and warned “if the escalation continues, the entire Middle East could encounter a catastrophe.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and U.K. Ambassador Barbara Woodward insisted the attacks were in self-defence. “So de-escalation needs to happen,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It needs to happen from the Houthis who are putting all of our shipping lines in jeopardy.”

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US and UK strike Houthi targets in Yemen after weeks of Red Sea attacks

US and British forces struck rebel-held Yemen early on Friday after weeks of disruptive attacks on Red Sea shipping by Iran-backed Houthi rebels who say they act in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

The pre-dawn air strikes add to escalating fears of wider conflict in the region, where violence involving Tehran-aligned groups in Yemen as well as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria has surged since the Israel-Hamas war began in early October.

Iran “strongly condemned” the strikes, which the United States, Britain and eight other allies said aimed to “de-escalate tensions”.

Nasser Kanani, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said that the Western strikes “will have no result other than fuelling insecurity and instability in the region”, while “diverting the world’s attention” from Gaza.

China said it was “concerned about the escalation of tensions in the Red Sea”, and news of the strikes sent oil prices up more than 2 percent.

The Houthis have carried out a growing number of attacks on what they deem to be Israeli-linked shipping in the Red Sea, a key international trade route, since October 7, when the Hamas-led attack on Israel sparked the war which is still raging in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The rebels have controlled a major part of Yemen since a civil war erupted there in 2014 and are part of a regional Iran-backed “axis of resistance” against Israel and its allies.

Friday’s strikes targeted an airbase, airports and a military camp, the Houthis’ Al-Masirah TV station said, with AFP correspondents and witnesses reporting they could hear heavy strikes in Hodeida and Sanaa.

“Our country was subjected to a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines and warplanes,” said Hussein al-Ezzi, the rebels’ deputy foreign minister.

“America and Britain will have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression,” he added, according to official Houthi media.

US President Joe Biden called the strikes a “defensive action” after the Red Sea attacks and said he “will not hesitate” to order further military action if needed.

With fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles, 60 targets at 16 Houthi locations were hit by more than 100 precision-guided munitions, US Central Command said in a statement.

Unverified images on social media, some of them purportedly of Al-Dailami airbase north of the rebel-held capital Sanaa, showed explosions lighting up the sky as loud bangs and the roar of planes sounded.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said at least five people had been killed.

‘Repeated warnings’

In a statement, Biden called the strikes a success and said he ordered them “against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways”.

Biden called the strikes a “direct response” to the “unprecedented” attacks by the Houthis which included “the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history”.

Blaming the Houthis for ignoring “repeated warnings”, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement the strikes were “necessary and proportionate”.

Britain’s defence ministry released footage of Royal Air Force jets returning to their Cyprus base after the mission, and US Centcom video showed warplanes apparently taking off from a sea-based carrier.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes “targeted sites associated with the Houthis’ unmanned aerial vehicle, ballistic and cruise missile, and coastal radar and air surveillance capabilities”.

A joint statement by the United States, Britain, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea said the “aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea”.

The Houthis said they will not be deterred.

“We affirm that there is absolutely no justification for this aggression against Yemen, as there was no threat to international navigation in the Red and Arabian Seas,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam posted on X, formerly Twitter.

He said there was no threat to any vessels apart from “Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine”.

Prior to Friday’s strikes, Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said bombing the Houthis would be “counterproductive”.

Strikes against the Houthis, who have weathered years of air raids by a Saudi-led coalition, would have little impact and would only raise their standing in the Arab world, said Feierstein of the Middle East Institute think-tank in Washington.               

Saudi Arabia calls for ‘restraint’

Yemen’s neighbour Saudi Arabia is trying to extricate itself from a nine-year war with the Houthis, though fighting has largely been on hold since a truce in early 2022.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is following with great concern the military operations,” a foreign ministry statement said after the US and British strikes.

Riyadh called for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation”.

US and allied forces in Iraq and Syria, where they are part of an anti-jihadist coalition, have also faced stepped-up attacks since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, with Washington responding to several by bombing the sites of pro-Iran groups.

Israel has also stepped up strikes against targets in Syria, and has exchanged regular fire with Lebanon’s Hezbollah over its northern border.

Washington, which has said it seeks to avoid a spreading conflict, in December announced a maritime security initiative, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect shipping in the Red Sea route which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

Twelve nations led by the United States warned the Houthis on January 3 of “consequences” unless they immediately stopped attacks on commercial vessels.

On Tuesday, however, the Houthis launched what London called their most significant attack yet, with US and British forces shooting down 18 drones and three missiles.

The final straw for the Western allies appeared to come early Thursday when the US military said the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into a shipping lane in the Gulf of Aden.

It was the 27th attack on international shipping in the Red Sea since November 19, the US military said.

The intensifying attacks have caused shipping companies to divert around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Electric car manufacturer Tesla said it was suspending most production at its German factory because of a parts shortage due to shipping delays linked to Houthi attacks.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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US and UK navies repel largest attack yet by Houthis in Red Sea

Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired their largest-ever barrage of drones and missiles targeting shipping in the Red Sea, forcing the United States and British navies to shoot down the projectiles in a major naval engagement, authorities said Wednesday. No damage was immediately reported. 

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The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis came despite a planned United Nations Security Council vote later Wednesday to potentially condemn and demand an immediate halt to the attacks by the rebels, who say their assaults are aimed at stopping Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip

However, their targets increasingly have little — or no — connection to Israel and imperil a crucial trade route linking Asia and the Middle East with Europe. That raises the risk of a U.S. retaliatory strike on Yemen that could upend an uneasy cease-fire that has held in the Arab world’s poorest country. 

The assault happened off the Yemeni port cities of Hodeida and Mokha, according to the private intelligence firm Ambrey. In the Hodeida attack, Ambrey said ships described over radio seeing missiles and drones, with U.S.-allied warships in the area urging “vessels to proceed at maximum speed.”

Off Mokha, ships saw missiles fired, a drone in the air and small vessels trailing them, Ambrey said early Wednesday. The British military’s United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations also acknowledged the attack off Hodeida. 

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the “complex attack” launched by the Houthis included bomb-carrying drones, anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile.

It said 18 drones, two cruise missiles and the anti-ship missile were downed by F-18s from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as by American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers the USS Gravely, the USS Laboon and the USS Mason, as well as the United Kingdom’s HMS Diamond. 


“This is the 26th Houthi attack on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea since Nov. 19,” Central Command said. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”

“Vessels are advised to transit with caution and report any suspicious activity,” the UKTMO added. 

British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps described the assault as “the largest attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date,” saying the Diamond used Sea Viper missiles and guns to shoot down multiple drones. 

“The U.K. alongside allies have previously made clear that these illegal attacks are completely unacceptable and if continued the Houthis will bear the consequences,” Shapps said in a statement. “We will take the action needed to protect innocent lives and the global economy.”


The Houthis, a Shiite group that has held Yemen’s capital of Sanaa since 2014, later claimed responsibility for the attack in a televised statement by rebel spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree. Saree claimed the attack “targeted an American ship that was providing support to the Zionist entity,” without offering any further information. He also described it as an “initial response” to American troops sinking Houthi vessels and killing 10 rebel fighters last week. 

The Houthis will “continue to prevent Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine from navigating in the Red Sea until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip ends,” Saree said. 

The Houthis say their attacks aim to end the pounding Israeli air-and-ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. However, the links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue. 

The Red Sea links the Mideast and Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The strait is only 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it and an estimated $1 trillion in goods pass through the strait annually.

A U.S. draft resolution before the U.N. Security Council, obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press, says the Houthi attacks impede global commerce “and undermine navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace and security.” The resolution would demand the immediate release of the first ship the Houthis attacked, the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to an Israeli company that the rebels seized in November along with its crew.

An initial draft of the resolution would have recognized “the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to take appropriate measures to defend their merchant and naval vessels.” 

The final draft is weaker, eliminating any U.N. recognition of a country’s right to defend its ships. Instead, it would affirm that the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial vessels must be respected, and take note “of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”

A U.S-led coalition of nations has been patrolling the Red Sea to try and prevent the attacks. There’s been no broad retaliatory strike yet, despite warnings from the U.S. However, Tuesday’s attack appeared to be testing what response, if any, would come from Washington. 

Meanwhile, a separate, tentative cease-fire between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has held for months, despite the long civil war in Yemen. This has raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea — or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces — could reignite those tensions in Yemen. It also may draw in Iran, which has so far largely avoided directly entering the wider Israel-Hamas war, further into the conflict. 

(AP)



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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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How Houthi rebels are threatening global trade nexus on Red Sea

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The U.S. is mustering an international armada to deter Iranian-backed Houthi militias from Yemen from attacking shipping in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways for global trade, including energy cargos.

The Houthis’ drone and missile attacks are ostensibly a response to the war between Israel and Hamas, but fears are growing that the broader world economy could be disrupted as commercial vessels are forced to reroute.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a videoconference with 43 countries, the EU and NATO, telling them that “attacks had already impacted the global economy and would continue to threaten commercial shipping if the international community did not come together to address the issue collectively.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. announced an international security effort dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian that listed the U.K., Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain as participants. Madrid, however, said it wouldn’t take part. 

The Houthis were quick to respond. 

“Even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop unless the genocide crimes in Gaza stop and allow food, medicine, and fuel to enter its besieged population, no matter the sacrifices it costs us,” said Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, a member of the Ansar Allah political bureau, in a post on X

Here’s what you need to know about the Red Sea crisis.

1. Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships?

International observers have put the blame for the hijackings, missiles and drone attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have stepped up their attacks since the Israel-Hamas war started. The Shi’ite Islamist group is part of the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and is armed by Tehran. Almost certainly due to Iranian support with ballistics, the Houthis have directly targeted Israel since the beginning of the war, firing missiles and drones up the Red Sea toward the resort of Eilat.

The Houthis have been embroiled in Yemen’s long-running civil war and have been locked in combat with an intervention force in the country led by Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have claimed several major strikes against high-value energy installations in Saudi Arabia over the past years, but many international observers have identified some of their bigger claims as implausible, seeing the Houthis as a smokescreen for direct Iranian action against its arch enemy Riyadh.

After first firing drones and cruise missiles at Israel, the rebels are now targeting commercial vessels it deems linked to Israel. The Houthis have launched about 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks against 10 commercial vessels, the U.S. Department of Defense said on Tuesday

As a result, some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Italian-Swiss MSC, Danish giant Maersk and France’s CMA CGM, were forced to reroute to avoid being targeted. BP also paused shipping through the Red Sea. 

2. Why is the Red Sea so important?

The Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Lamentation) strait between Djibouti and Yemen where the Houthis have been attacking vessels marks the southern entrance to the Red Sea, which connects to the Suez Canal and is a crucial link between Europe and Asia. 

Estimate are that 12 to 15 percent passes of global trade takes this route, representing 30 percent of global container traffic. Some 7 percent to 10 percent of the world’s oil and 8 percent of liquefied natural gas are also shipped through the same waterway. 

Now that the strait is closed, “alternatives require additional cost, additional delay, and don’t sit with the integrated supply chain that already exists,” said Marco Forgione, director general with the Institute of Export and International Trade.

Diverting ships around Africa adds up to two weeks to journey times, creating additional cost and congestion at ports.

3. What is the West doing about it?

Over the weekend, the American destroyer USS Carney and U.K. destroyer HMS Diamond shot down over a dozen drones. Earlier this month, the French FREMM multi-mission frigate Languedoc also intercepted three drones, including with Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles. 

Now, Washington is seeking to lead an international operation to ramp up efforts against the Iran-backed group, under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and its Task Force 153. 

“It’s a reinsurance operation for commercial ships,” said Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), adding it’s still unclear whether the operation is about escorting commercial vessels or pooling air defense capabilities to fight against drones and ballistic missiles. 

4. Who is taking part?

On Tuesday, the U.K. announced HMS Diamond would be deployed as part of the U.S.-led operation.

After a video meeting between Austin and Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, Italy also agreed to join and said it would deploy the Virginio Fasan frigate, a 144-meter military vessel equipped with Aster 30 and 15 long-range missiles. The ship was scheduled to begin patrolling the Red Sea as part of the European anti-piracy Atalanta operation by February but is now expected to transit the Suez Canal on December 24.

France didn’t explicitly say whether Paris was in or out, but French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told lawmakers on Tuesday that the U.S. initiative is “interesting” because it allows intelligence sharing.

“France already has a strong presence in the region,” he added, referring to the EU’s Atalanta and Agénor operations.  

However, Spain — despite being listed as a participant by Washington — said it will only take part if NATO or the EU decide to do so, and not “unilaterally,” according to El País, citing the government.

5. Who isn’t?

Lecornu insisted regional powers such as Saudi Arabia should be included in the coalition and said he would address the issue with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, in a meeting in Paris on Tuesday evening. 

According to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a number of Middle Eastern allies appear reluctant to take part.

“Where’s Egypt? Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is the United Arab Emirates?” he asked, warning that via its Houthi allies Iran is seeking to divide the West and its regional allies and worsen tensions around the Israel-Hamas war.

China also has a base in Djibouti where it has warships, although it isn’t in the coalition.

6. What do the Red Sea attacks mean for global trade?

While a fully-fledged economic crisis is not on the horizon yet, what’s happening in the Red Sea could lead to price increases.

“The situation is concerning in every aspect — particularly in terms of energy, oil and gas,” said Fotios Katsoulas, lead tanker analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“Demand for [maritime] fuel is already expected to increase up to 5 percent,” he said, and “higher fuel prices, higher costs for shipping, higher insurance premiums” ultimately mean higher costs for consumers. “There are even vessels already in the Red Sea that are considering passing back through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, even if they’d have to pay half a million dollars to do so.”

John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, said that while “there will be an impact in terms of the price of commodities at your supermarket checkout” and there may be an impact on oil prices, “there is still shipping that is transiting the Red Sea.” 

This is not “a total disruption” comparable to the days-long blockage of the canal in 2021 by the Ever Given container ship, he argued. 

Forgione, however, said he was “concerned that we may end up with a de facto blockade of the Suez Canal, because the Houthi rebels have a very clear agenda.”

7. Why are drones so hard to fight?

The way the Houthis operate raises challenges for Western naval forces, as they’re fending off cheap drones with ultra-expensive equipment. 

Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles — the ones fired by the French Languedoc frigate — are estimated to cost more than €1 million each while Iran-made Shahed-type drones, likely used by the Houthis, cost barely $20,000. 

“When you kill a Shahed with an Aster, it’s really the Shahed that has killed the Aster,” France’s chief of defense staff, General Thierry Burkhard, said at a conference in Paris earlier this month. 

However, if the Shahed hits a commercial vessel or a warship, the cost would be a lot higher.

“The advantage of forming a coalition is that we can share the threats that could befall boats,” IFRI’s Fayet said. “There’s an awareness now that [the Houthis] are a real threat, and that they’re able to maintain the effort over time.”  

With reporting by Laura Kayali, Antonia Zimmermann, Gabriel Gavin, Tommaso Lecca, Joshua Posaner and Geoffrey Smith.



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