A Houthi State on Bab al-Mandab? | Charles Duelfer

A Houthi State on Bab al-Mandab?

Can the UN Security Council accept a settlement of the Yemen conflict which does not mandate adherence to Freedom of Navigation?

It appears the Houthi leadership in Sana’a aspires to be to the Bab al-Mandab, as Egypt is to the Suez Canal.  This is to say, in control of the transits and deriving a continuous revenue stream.  It also seems that Iran is quite happy with supporting this outcome.  To the extent Iran controls the Houthis, it will be able to squeeze the twin carotid arteries of shipping at the Strait of Hormuz on the Gulf side and the Bab al-Mandab on the Red Sea. Iran control over maritime access on both sides of the Arabian Peninsula is being demonstrated by the Houthis maritime attacks. 

The US military and its allies have tried to counter the Houthis attacks which have effectively choked commerce through the Red Sea. They have not succeeded, though the US Navy has expended a substantial fortune on munitions.  Vice Admiral Brad Cooper DCINC of CENTCOM stated in a 60-Minutes News interview two days ago that they have expended about 100 Standard Missile 2s to defend against the attacks by anti-ship ballistic missiles.  This is the first time such advanced missiles have been used in combat against the US Navy or commercial shipping.  Of course, these advanced weapons were provided to the Houthis by Iran.  And Iran is learning very valuable lessons from their use in combat.

So far, the SM-2 missiles have been successful.  However, Vice Admiral Cooper, mentioned that they cost about $4 million each.  So, the US military has spent over $400 million just on those munitions.  They have consumed many others, including precision aerial bombs and cruise missiles to attempt to disarm Houthi facilities. 

This is a very expensive engagement where US costs far exceed the costs of the attacker.  I have no idea how depleted our munitions stocks are, but this is another case where we are using munitions that will take years to replace against third tier opponents.

China must be watching and counting, at a minimum.  It was hard to escape noticing that the Iranian Ship “Bershad” was, until yesterday, moored (according to AIS data) in Djibouti waters…perhaps a mile or two, from the PLA facility on the Djibouti shore.  This is the ship that the US acknowledged conducting cyber actions against.  It was reportedly providing targeting information to the Houthis for their maritime missile attacks.  The Chinese have been mysteriously quiet about the threats to international shipping (lots of China’s shipping passes this way.) 

All of this poses a nasty dilemma for the pursuit of Yemen peace negotiations.  The de facto truce on the ground has been prolonged presumably because there is some interest by all parties in a political solution of some sort.  A roadmap of steps forward has been created after much effort.  The Houthis state publicly that the peace dialogue is separate from their attacking ships in waters off Yemen. Those attacks are outside Yemen.  Forgive me for not being relieved about that distinction.

Would it ever be acceptable, to have a government in Yemen that has established its control over the Bab al-Mandab and is in effect, charging fees for passage?   Can the US impose a military solution to this and every other similar conflict?  Do we have enough munitions?

The UN-led negotiations on Yemen have become much more complicated.  The existing framework for those negotiations was already a bit out of date.  The new circumstances require the UN Security Council to agree that freedom of navigation must now be part of any solution.  UN Negotiator Hans Grundberg’s job is now far more complicated.  The UN  Security Council should make clear that adherence to international norms for freedom of navigation must now be part of the solution.  Ambiguity is not useful on this issue.

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