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The Red Sea Has Become Extensively Militarised. An Immediate Ceasefire is Needed

Since 19 November, the Houthis have carried out 28 drone and missile attacks in the Red Sea.

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In the proxy war unfolding between Israel and its arch-foe Iran, the Red Sea and the region around it have emerged as major flashpoints. The Houthi militants backed by Tehran, who now control most of Yemen, have been targetting shipping in the Red Sea, ships that it says are destined for Israel.

Since 19 November, the Houthis have carried out 28 drone and missile attacks in the Red Sea. In response, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) have launched attacks on Yemen to destroy Houthi capabilities.

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The Houthi Attacks Have Impacted Global Trade

The attacks by the Houthis, in solidarity with the Palestinians, have majorly impacted the Israeli economy, with an 85 per cent drop in port activities of the latter's only Red Sea port, the Port of Eilat. The port handles most of Israel's potash exports and imports of cars made by China. China's largest state-owned shipping company, COSCO, has suspended shipping to Israel through the Red Sea. Such disruptions can also eat into Israel's growing share in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market.

But, even more, the Houthi attacks have impacted global trade.

The Red Sea is a major global maritime route which handles almost 12 per cent of worldwide shipping, handling 50 ships daily full of cargo amounting to anywhere between 3 to 9 billion US dollars. The Houthi attacks, according to reports based on data released by Clarkson Research, have cut the Red Sea's freight traffic by 44 per cent, significantly increasing both travel time and cost. Oil prices have also increased by one per cent since 12 January.

In response to these attacks on 18 December, the US launched Operation Prosperity Guardian — a multinational coalition to respond to the Houthi attacks. The operation was immediately condemned by China and Russia, who saw this as yet another endeavour to expand US presence in the Red Sea.

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The Red Sea Has Become an Extensively Militarised Zone

A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution was hammered out with great difficulty on 10 January, but Russia and China abstained. The resolution condemned “in the strongest terms” the multiple attacks by Houthi rebels off the coast of Yemen, and raised fears of a spillover from the war in Gaza. It is a welcome move; after all, since the beginning of this brutal conflict, this is the only second resolution that the UNSC has managed to adopt, pointing to the common threat that the Houthis pose.

The same day on which the UN resolution was adopted, the Houthis fired the largest barrage of more than 20 drones and missiles at international ships and warships in the Red Sea. In response, the US and UK hit over 60 Yemeni targets on 11 and 13 January. Some reports say that attacks were launched yesterday too. The Houthis have vowed retaliation and fired an anti-cruise missile at the USS Laboon, which was operating in the Southern Red Sea. A statement by the US Central Command said, "...The missile was shot down in the vicinity of the coast of Hudaydah by a US fighter aircraft."

Attacks by Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq and Syria, targetting US troops stationed there have also increased, though without any casualties or damages. China and Russia have also condemned the West's attacks on Yemen. Both have excellent relations with Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has also deployed a warship to the Red Sea, and reports say that the government praised the Houthis for standing by the Palestinians. Consequently, the Red Sea has become an extensively militarised zone, with the Houthis, in spite of their statements, also targetting ships not destined for Israeli ports.

India has also increased its maritime security operations independently, dispatching 10 warships in the Arabian Sea. This decision came in the wake of the attacks on two India-bound cargo ships in December last year. More recently, on 5 January, the INS Chennai successfully thwarted the attempted hijacking of MV Lila Norfolk in the Arabian Sea, rescuing the 21-member crew. Besides, the rerouting issue is affecting at least 20-25 per cent of India’s total merchandise trade, particularly impacting the cargo bound for Europe and the US East Coast.

Yet, India has refused to be part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, so as not to become a deliberate target of the Houthis. Other major stakeholders in the safety and security of the Red Sea's shipping, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have refused to join the coalition as well.

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The Situation That is Developing is Ominous

Over the decades, the US, Israel, and Iran have been carefully calibrating their actions in response to provocations by either side. The low profile proxy war in different parts of West Asia has managed to keep the conflict from escalating.

This time, however, the containment is very fragile. The Houthis have prevailed over the Saudi-Emirati coalition's war against it. The China brokered Iran-Saudi truce is no longer relevant. And with the war between the Ukraine (supported by the West) and Russia, showing no signs of ending, also threatens to spill over into the Red Sea.

The only way out, is not further militarisation of the region, but a ceasefire. India has always been calling for a ceasefire from the beginning of the conflict while harshly condemning Hamas' 7 October attacks (a 100 days ago from today). The Arab world has been calling for a ceasefire too, and so have Russia, China, and France.

In the last UNSC vote for a ceasefire resolution in December (introduced by the United Arab Emirates), the US was the only country that voted against it. Australia, whose foreign minister has embarked on a tour of the Middle East, has also called for a ceasefire. Israel's plans to expel Palestinians from Gaza have no takers. Its disproportionate assault on Gaza has been unprecedented, even by Israeli standards.

The US, too has acknowledged this. According to the Wall Street Journal, till mid-December, Israel had dropped 29,000 bombs, munitions, and shells on Gaza, destroying nearly 70 per cent of its homes and half of its buildings. Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice is hearing the charges made by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

According to Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), 9000 Hamas members have been killed, more than a dozen commanders eliminated, 30,000 targets struck in Gaza, more than 170 terrorists in Lebanon killed, and over 750 Hezbollah posts hit.

However, more than 100 Israeli hostages are still being held in captivity by Hamas. The Israeli people wish to see a new government and their loved ones to be brought back home. The situation is, mildly put, untenable. The only way out is an immediate ceasefire.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Yemen   Israel-Palestine   Houthi Rebels 

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