A previous photo of the German frigate (HESSEN) that Germany sent to the Red Sea as part of the European Operation - German Defense

EU Launches a New Mission in the Red Sea: Significance and Implications


Thu, 07-03-2024 10:42 AM, Aden Time

There is a need for responses to consider Yemen’s wider political reality and the peace file. Specifically, the Houthi maritime attacks should not be read in isolation.

Dr. Marta Furlan

Since the start of the Hamas-Israeli war last October, the Houthis – the Zaydi Shia armed group that has been controlling Sanaa and North Yemen since September 2014 and that belongs to Iran’s Axis of Resistance – have strived to present themselves as the main defenders of the Palestinian cause.

First, the group launched a series of missile and drone attacks against Israel, targeting the Israeli Red Sea port city of Eilat, and even downing an American MQ-9 drone in the Red Sea region. As those attacks were promptly intercepted, the Houthis redirected its attention towards cargo ships transiting through the Red Sea, threatening maritime traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

In response to the security threat posed by the Houthis, the US sent additional warships to the region and sought to expand the Combined Task Force (CTF) 153. The new effort at maritime security was launched under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian. However, shortly after its launch, it became clear that the naval task force would be mainly a US effort, with participation limited to some Western US-allied countries, the Seychelles, and Bahrain (home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet). 

Within the EU, in particular, a divergence of opinion among the bloc members was apparent. While some EU nations, opted to contribute to the US-led Operation out of support for greater EU engagement in the region to protect European security and interests, others were reluctant to back Operation Prosperity Guardian out of fear that the bloc would be contributing to escalating the conflict in the Middle East. Britain for instance said that it would contribute HMS Diamond, a destroyer, to Operation Prosperity Guardian. The Netherlands and Norway said that they would send staff officers. Conversely, Spain said that it “will not participate unilaterally in the Red Sea operation.” Italy sent a naval frigate “to protect its national interests” but not as part of the Operation.

Operation Aspides enters the scene

A new turn of events, however, came about in February as the European Union launched a naval mission in the Red Sea. On Monday February 19th, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the decision to deploy Naval Force Operation Aspides, saying “Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, working alongside our international partners. Beyond crisis response, it's a step towards a stronger European presence at sea to protect our European interests.”  

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell similarly said that  with the new maritime Operation, “the European Union is responding swiftly to the necessity to restore maritime security and freedom of navigation in a highly strategic maritime corridor. The operation will play a key role in safeguarding commercial and security interests, for the sake of the EU and the wider international community.”

So far, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Belgium have said they plan to contribute ships to Aspides. Greece, in particular, will be in charge of leading the Operation, and the latter’s operational command centre will be in the Greek city of Larissa.

The Operation, which balances the different approaches among European countries that were mentioned before,  will send European warships and airborne early warning systems to the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and surrounding waters. The mandate of the EU mission is to protect commercial ships and intercept attacks, but not take part in strikes against the Houthis on land. In later February, the German navy frigate Hassen shot down two drones fired by the Houthis. 

As such, the EU approach differentiates itself substantially from the American-British approach, which has seen the two countries conducting airstrikes against Houthi targets inside Yemen, including weapons depots, launch sites, and production facilities. Nonetheless, Aspides will complement Operation Prosperity Guardian, adding another layer of defense against the Houthi threat.

The European defensive posture in comparison

That the EU Mission has adopted a more defensive posture is not only well explained by the need to balance the different preferences held by different European countries, but also by the limited effectiveness that the US-UK strikes have been proving to have. In fact, the attacks that were aimed at weakening the Houthis’ military capabilities have been de facto feeding into their rhetoric. 

Capitalizing on the sympathy for the Palestinian cause and the hostility towards foreign intervention that are prevalent across Yemen, the Houthis have been exploiting those attacks to divert attention from the disastrous situation in Houthi-controlled areas (who would dare to complain at rising food and fuel prices, unpaid public salaries, and widespread unemployment when the group is standing up for the noble Palestinian cause), obtain support among the Yemeni people (including in government-controlled South Yemen), and recruit new sympathizers, supporters, and fighters. 

In other words, as Washington and London launch strikes against them, the Houthis’ leadership (and especially the most radical components thereof) promises to be emboldened further. For a group that has survived (and thrived in) eight years of bombing by the Saudis and whose leadership seems more comfortable navigating war than peace (their first military confrontation with the Yemeni government dates to 2004), this latest round of confrontation by the US and the UK is nothing but a reason for pride for the Houthis – and one that they have not be scared to respond to. In fact, the Houthis have since expanded the scope of their attacks into the Gulf of Aden.

In addition to that, the US-UK attacks do not seem to have particularly harmed the Houthis capabilities. The Houthis, in fact, are known for hiding their medium and heavy arms in mountain camps and tunnels, beyond the reach of airstrikes. The group, also, operates decentralized camps and bases, reducing the impact that an attack against one facility may have.

The road to Aspides

As much as the preference for a defensive posture by the EU are understood, so are the reasons for the EU’s naval deployment. In fact, 12% of global trade and 30% of global container traffic passes through the Red Sea. Most importantly, however, Red Sea routes account for 40% of trade between Asia and Europe. In the case of trade between China and the EU, maritime trade even amounts to 90% of those exchanges.

As the Houthis’ maritime attacks have forced many shipping companies to reroute their vessels towards the Cape of Good Hope (which means longer times and higher prices), European countries face the risk of being negatively impacted. Should trade dynamics continue as they currently are in the wake of the Houthis’ attacks, Europe and its people may well face higher energy costs, delayed shipments, and inflation. As noted by the European Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, despite the current containment of the effects of these disruptions, there is a risk for the European economy which needs to be monitored closely.

The launch of the EU mission came as the Houthis launched a missile attack against the Rubymar, a Belize-flagged and British-owned ship transiting through the Red Sea. The vessel sustained severe damage and, after being abandoned for a few days, it ultimately sank. As the vessel was transporting more than 41,000 tonnes of fertilizers and had been liking oil for some days, its fate has caused concerns of disastrous ecological damage to the Red Sea and its coral reefs, which may be the latest victim of the Houthis’ recklessness and violence. 

As the Rubymar is the first vessel to get lost in the wave of Houthi maritime attacks, one can only imagine the impact that this will have on rerouting decisions by vessel operators. 

However, far from being an exclusively economic issue, the Houthis’ attacks are also threatening security and stability in an area that sits at the entrance of Europe. As noted by Borrell, “disruptions to freedom of navigation have consequences that go beyond economic losses. It is not just a matter of some days more or some dollars more. It is about peace and stability.” 

Finally, beyond seeking to respond to the current economic and security crisis created by the Houthi attacks, the EU Operation also aims to bolster the EU’s maritime strategy, for which the Red Sea and the wider Northwestern Indian Ocean are a priority. In fact, the EU designated the Northwestern Indian Ocean as a Maritime Area of Interest in 2022, stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Southern Tropic and from the North of the Red Sea towards the center of the Indian Ocean.

Far from being a new reality, as early as 2008 the EU launched Operation Atalanta to counter piracy (back then an exclusive affairs of Somali pirates), fight drug and weapons trafficking, and protect shipping. In 2020, then, France led eight other European countries in the maritime monitoring Mission Agenor aimed at ensuing safe transit in the crucial Strait of Hormuz. Aspides is thus only the latest piece in the wider puzzle of European naval efforts in the area.

The EU’s naval presence and Yemen

As the EU’s Operation Aspides enters the Red Sea arena, questions arise as to what its contributions and implications will be. While only time will be able to answer those questions, as new initiatives take place in the Red Sea there is an immediate need for close coordination among them, so as to maximize existing efforts and create constructive synergies among different responses.

At the same time, there is a need for those responses to consider Yemen’s wider political reality and the peace file. Specifically, the Houthi maritime attacks should not be read in isolation but rather linked to the group’s goal of asserting its control over Yemen. In fact, while the group insists that its attacks are a response to the Hamas-Israeli conflict, anyone familiar with the group knows that its actions are about Yemen rather than Gaza. 

Therefore, the ongoing maritime efforts should also be coupled with support for the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Yemen Coast Guard. As has been noted by prominent experts, in fact, “weakening the Houthis within the context of the civil war is the only way to prevent them from further consolidating their position as the power broker in Yemen and projecting more power abroad, including in the maritime domain.

Dr. Marta Furlan

Research Program Officer at Free the Slaves (FTS), a non-governmental organization working to end human trafficking and modern slavery. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Orion Policy Institute (OPI) and a Fellow at the Center on Armed Groups. (@MFurlanBuckl)

Red SeaEUSouth YemenYemenHouthisNaval missilesMaritime