Dec 14, 2023 - World

U.S. warns Houthis to stop attacks in Red Sea

 screen grab from video showing Houthi rebels taking over a cargo vessel in the Red Sea

A screen grab from video released last month showing Houthi rebels taking over a cargo vessel in the Red Sea. Photo: Ansarullah Media Center/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has sent messages to the Houthi rebels in Yemen via several channels recently warning them to stop their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and against Israel, two U.S. officials said.

Why it matters: The Houthi attacks have created tensions in the region and are posing a growing threat to ships navigating one of the region's main commercial shipping routes.

Driving the news: Since the Israel-Hamas war started, the Houthis have launched more than 70 drones and ballistic missiles towards Israel, which is more than 1,000 miles away from Yemen, the IDF said.

  • Almost all of the missiles and drones were intercepted by Israeli, U.S., French and Saudi air defense systems.
  • In recent weeks, the Houthis escalated their attacks and started targeting commercial ships in the vicinity of the Bab el-Mandeb strait in the Red Sea, which they claimed were owned by Israeli companies or were heading to Israel.
  • But most of the vessels that were attacked had a remote or no affiliation with Israel.
  • On Thursday, the Houthis conducted another attack on a ship owned by a Chinese company.

Behind the scenes: U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, who visited the Gulf in recent days, asked his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar to convey warning messages to the Houthis, the officials said.

  • Lenderking stressed the U.S. is highly concerned about Houthi attacks that threaten freedom of navigation in international waters.
  • The U.S. officials said several countries in the region gave similar messages to the Houthis over the last two weeks and made clear Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea or against Israel over their territory are "unacceptable."
  • These warnings so far haven't led the Houthis to de-escalate their attacks, U.S. officials admit.

State of play: As a result of the attacks, the arrival of commercial ships to the port of Eilat in southern Israel has almost completely stopped.

  • Ships heading to Israel from Asia now take a route that circles Africa, making the journey three weeks longer and more expensive.
  • Over the past two weeks, ships headed to other ports outside Israel also started using the longer route to reach Europe in order not to be targeted.

The big picture: The U.S. is expected to announce on Friday that a special upgraded multinational task force will start operating in the Red Sea to deter the Houthis from further attacks and counter them, two Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • The White House National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said over the last week that the State Department and the Pentagon have been working on getting countries to contribute navy ships for the task force that will operate under the U.S. central command's naval forces.
  • A senior Israeli official said the task force is not going to escort ships in the Red Sea, but that the presence of more navy ships in the region will make it easier to respond to threats.
  • Houthi official Mohammed al-Bouhaithi told al-Mayadeen television network on Thursday that the Houthis will see any navy ship from the U.S. or other countries that are part of the task force as a legitimate target and threatened the Houthis could block the Bab el-Mandeb for all ships if the war in Gaza continues.

What to watch: The Israeli government has become increasingly concerned about the Houthi attacks with some officials saying it needs to respond militarily.

  • A senior Israeli official said the Israeli war cabinet decided against military action for the moment so that the Houthis and their Iranian backers aren't able to distract the IDF from the war in Gaza and create a wider conflict in the region.
  • White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stressed in his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the members of the war cabinet on Thursday that the U.S. is committed to protecting freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, U.S. officials said.
  • The Israeli government has agreed to see what effect the multinational maritime task force will have once it starts operating in the Red Sea and to not take any action of its own for now, Israeli officials said.
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