The U.S and allies have given a final warning to Yemen’s Houthi movement to halt attacks on international shipping lanes in the Red Sea or face imminent military action as U.S. officials said that planning for air strikes and special operations is underway.
The Houthis control about half of Yemen’s coastline along the Red Sea’s congested sea lanes after a years-long civil war in Yemen that the Iranian-backed group largely won.
Since the fighting in Gaza began in October, the Houthis conducted at least 25 attacks from missile launches to hijackings in response to Israel’s ongoing military operation in the Gaza Strip targeting their key allies in Hamas. The Houthis have also occasionally fired long-range missiles and drones at Israel itself throughout the conflict that began on Oct. 7 of last year after Hamas and its allies killed more than 1200 Israelis and kidnapped over 200.
The statement from 13 countries including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and multiple EU countries came as the Danish shipping behemoth Maersk said it would mostly suspend using Red Sea routes because of the threat.
“Ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” said the statement issued by the White House. “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 damage to the world economy is shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal could be extensive, warned the coalition.
“Nearly 15 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 percent of global grain trade, 12 percent of seaborne-traded oil and 8 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade,” the joint statement read.
A U.S. official confirmed to VICE News that plans for military action led by the U.S. and U.K. had been developed over the past two weeks and could take place at any moment.
“These disruptions have to stop and the president has been clear there will be no further warnings before action is taken,” said the official, who spoke on background to discuss military operations. “There’s been significant patience to prevent the Gaza conflict from spreading regionally but keeping sea lanes open to trade is a core mission of the international community.”
A NATO military official told VICE that attempts to communicate the urgency and seriousness of the warnings to the Houthis had been carried by Omani and Qatari diplomats to the Houthis, who appear to have rejected the demand.
Military action will certainly include air strikes and naval operations against the Houthis’ basic but effective missile and drone programs as well as their fleet of small boats often used to harass sea lanes. On Sunday the Pentagon announced that U.S. helicopters sank three small Houthi vessels as they attempted to hijack a container ship, which led the White House to increase its diplomatic push for international action. But the NATO official said local allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, while supportive of opening the sea lanes, face multiple political and security pressures related to the situation.
“If not for regional political considerations and fear of Iranian or Houthi retaliation, nearly every Arab country would openly join this coalition because of the critical nature of both the Red Sea and Suez to the regional economy,” said the official. “So there’s been a lot of pressure. Unfortunately, the Houthis have traditionally ignored this sort of pressure.”
Close allies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, with which they share political and religious affiliations, the Houthis forced a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that invaded Yemen in 2015 into peace talks that were underway at the start of the Gaza conflict.
“They beat the Saudis and Emiratis and now want to try their hand at fighting the U.S. and Israel, it’s as simple as that,” said an Arab diplomat.