Will Tension Escalate in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden?


Sat, 26-08-2023 10:34 AM, Aden Time

One cannot discount the possibility of an escalation of conflict or tension in the Red Sea area, keeping in mind the dangerous Houthi military attacks late last year.

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24) 

On August 7, 2023, the US announced that two of its warships carrying over 3,000 soldiers had arrived in the Red Sea. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet carrying sailors and Marines entered the Red Sea after passing through the Suez Canal as part of a pre-announced US Department of Defense deployment.

The move came one month after Iran's attempt to seize two commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman was thwarted by the US Navy on July 5. The US Navy said in a statement that its forces intervened to prevent Tehran's attempt to seize two commercial tankers in two separate incidents.

On news of the arrival of the US warships, the Iran-backed Houthi militia threatened to attack the US Navy forces. Before that, the Houthis had carried out naval military tests in the Red Sea using missiles and boats on July 13. The militia's Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Atifi threatened to target what he described as the "illegal presence in Yemeni territorial waters".

These developments in the Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandab Strait raise urgent questions about their possible consequences and whether sending the US forces could be a precautionary measure to prevent turning the Bab Al-Mandab Strait into an identical version of the busy Strait of Hormuz, where the Houthis carry out Tehran's wishes. This strategic area is likely to witness a heightening of tensions in the coming months.

The size of the US forces

According to 'Al-Monitor' news website:  "The US  deployment brings additional aircraft, helicopters, and amphibious landing craft to join a dozen US F-35s, as well as F-16 and A-10 aircraft and Navy guided-missile destroyers that have already arrived in the region in recent weeks and months to ramp up joint patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz."

As per the Pentagon, "the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 50) can carry more than two dozen rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, including MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and AV-8B Harrier attack jets in addition to several amphibious landing craft." The statement added: "A dock landing ship also supports operations for various rotary-wing aircraft, tactical vehicles, and amphibious landing craft." 

The area of operations of the US Fifth Fleet extends through 2.5 million square miles of water. It includes the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, it includes three strategic straits: the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Researcher at the International Crisis Group, Ahmed Naji, believes that "the deployment move has additional importance besides the US’ circulated reports stating that the objective is to intensify their active presence near international navigation lines to protect US ships, especially after the US accused Iran of seizing commercial ships."

Naji told 'South24 Center': "This has come despite the growing speculation that the Biden Administration is seeking to reduce its presence in the Middle East. Such conjecture does not seem accurate as the region still retains its strategic importance for the US Administration of being the most important energy source, especially in light of the Russia-Ukraine war."

The expert noted that "this move also comes amid a possible reduction in the escalation with Iran in the region following the China-mediated agreement between Riyadh and Tehran." He added: "The massive deployment is also indicative of the ongoing tension in the region until a comprehensive diplomatic solution is found to address the international concerns regarding Iran, according to Washington's view."

Political analyst Nabil Al-Soufi said that the latest US move "is related to the rising conflicts in Africa and also the intensifying concerns about international conflicts in general”. He told 'South24 Center': "The Red Sea region now includes bases for almost every major country in the world."

On July 5, an Iranian vessel in the Gulf of Oman attempted to seize the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker TRF Moss, and a few hours later an Iranian vessel attempted to stop the Bahamas-flagged oil tanker Richmond Voyager, according to the US Fifth Fleet

On July 6, the Iranian news agency 'IRNA' said: "Bahamian-flagged oil tanker Richmond Voyager changed course after colliding with an Iranian ship," adding that five of its crew were injured.

The news agency added: "The Iranian vessel asked judicial authorities for the immediate seizure of the offender tanker". Later, 'IRNA' announced that the Iranian judiciary issued an order to seize Richmond Voyager.  “Accordingly, the quest to seize the oil tanker continues and the case to pursue this violation is still open." 

The US Navy, in a report in July 2023, said that since 2021 "Iran has harassed, attacked or seized nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels.”

After the Houthi claimed military tests using missiles and boats, the militia’s leaders have continued their threats over the past few days. On August 10, 2023, Al-Atifi gave instructions during a military meeting to raise the level of readiness. On August 14, he threatened to target the islands located in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, and the Gulf of Aden. 

Prior to that, Hussein Al-Ezzi, who serves as Deputy Foreign Minister in the Houthi government, tweeted a warning on 'X' (formerly Twitter) saying: "For the sake of international peace and security as well as maintaining the safety of navigation in the Red Sea, the US forces must stay away from our territorial waters as approaching them would mean the beginning of the longest and the most costly battle in the human history."

The Houthi threats coincided with an escalation of their demand to be given part of the wealth and resources of South Yemen, which is richly endowed with oil and natural gas and minerals, to pay the salaries of their employees. This would be in return for their making any concessions in the peace process.

A strategic area

Egyptian military expert and advisor at the Nasser Military Academy, Major General Mohammed Zaki Al-Alfi stressed the importance of the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, and the Gulf of Aden for the US. He told 'South24 Center': "The large presence of the US forces is basically due to the strategic importance of this area, the security and stability of which impacts the entire Arab region."

He added: "It is one of the global strategic waterways that includes the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab, the Suez Canal, Bint Darya, and the Strait of Gibraltar." Al-Alfi believes that the US move is a result of the continuing threats by the Houthis against the US naval forces.

The Egyptian expert warned about the risks related to any kind of escalation or tension in this area, adding, "Indeed, any escalation or tension in the Red Sea area, whether the Bab al-Mandab or the Suez Canal, through which 35% of oil materials needed by the West and about 14% of the global trade volume passes, will have a negative impact – and not just limited to the American side, but affect all the parties."

"Hence, it is important to secure this area with the deployment of fleets of some states, whether it be in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, Bab al-Mandab, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal," he explained.

Sharing his comments, Yemeni military expert Waddah Al-Oubali said: "For the US and other members of the international community, Yemen constitutes a strategic geopolitical focal point as it directly overlooks the most important global shipping lane in the Red and Arabian seas, between which lies the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait."

He told 'South24 Center': "All of this makes the ongoing turmoil in this country a source of concern for all nations whose interests and supply chains largely depend on maritime shipping. Moreover, the status quo in Yemen threatens the system of regional and international security."

The escalation of tension 

Political analyst Nabil Al-Soufi downplayed the Houthi threats against the US. He said: "The Houthi political statements and threats are just idle talk. They may issue piracy threats but they are incapable of confrontation in the Sea. I rule out the possibility of an armed conflict in the Red Sea, that will see everyone lose."

Al-Oubali agreed with Al-Soufi’s theory that the Houthis are aware of their limits, adding that: "They use their threats for only their internal media consumption. If Washington was really afraid of the Houthis or deemed them as a real threat, they would have deployed their naval forces in complete secrecy and wouldn't have publicly announced moving their ships."

Nevertheless, one cannot discount the possibility of an escalation of conflict or tension in the Red Sea area, keeping in mind the dangerous Houthi military attacks late last year when they targeted the oil ports in South Yemen which led to the cessation of oil exports. These attacks, which hit the Yemeni economy, were not met with any international or regional condemnation. This has only made the Houthis treat any peace option carelessly.

Abdullah Al-Shadli 

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenBab Al-MandabHouthisSTCSaudi ArabiaRed SeaMiddle EastUS