13 countries threaten Houthis with military response if attacks against shipping continue

An international coalition of 13 countries said that the Iranian-backed Houthis with “will bear the responsibility of the consequences” if the militia continues to attack ships passing through the Red Sea and the Bab al Mandeb Strait. Iran, which supports the Houthis and aids in directing attacks, was not directly acknowledged in the demarche.

The White House released a joint statement on Jan. 3 by the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom that warned the Houthis to cease attacks on international shipping.

“Ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” the statement declared. “There is no lawful justification for intentionally targeting civilian shipping and naval vessels.”

Additionally, the Houthi attacks, which began on Nov. 19, 2023, “constitute a significant international problem that demands collective action.”

The 13 countries demanded “the immediate end of¬†these¬†illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews” and said that they are “determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.”

The language and posture from the 13 countries, including the U.S., is markedly different from that of the past month and a half. The Biden administration has sought to keep the fighting between Israel and Hamas confined to Gaza and fears escalating the fight against Iran’s proxies in the region. There have been no counterstrikes against the Houthis or Iran despite the fact that U.S. warships have been directly targeted on multiple occasions. Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq and Syria have launched more than 100 attacks on U.S. bases, and there have been only six counterstrikes.

Yet, Iran – which supplies weapons, money, training and intelligence to the Houthis to continue their war to take over Yemen as well as to attack international shipping – was conspicuously not mentioned in the statement issued by the 13 countries. An Iranian spy ship is providing intelligence and targeting data to the Houthis in order for them to launch drones and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles at commercial vessels, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Houthis are part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance, which seeks to aid Hamas in its fight again Israel. The Houthis are also belligerent to the U.S. for the latter’s support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for interfering in Yemen’s ongoin civil war.

The U.S. formed a coalition of 11 countries, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, on Dec. 18 in an effort to counter the Houthis threat. However, Operation Prosperity Guardian was a defensive coalition in nature and designed only to escort ships through the dangerous waters of the Red Sea and the Bab Al Mandeb. The Houthis were undeterred and continued to attack both commercial vessels and U.S., U.K., and French warships.

Since Dec. 30, the Houthis have launched a series of strikes at commercial shipping, including one on Dec. 31 in which four Houthi fast attack boats attempted to board a cargo ship. Attack helicopters from the USS Eisenhower Strike Group destroyed three of the boats and killed several Houthi fighters after taking fire, according to U.S. Central Command. The Houthis have launched 24 attacks since Nov. 19, 2023, according to CENTCOM.

Nearly one-sixth of all shipments and more than 10 percent of all oil transits through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, one of the most critical routes on the planet. Danish shipping giant Maersk, who owns one of the container ships attacked over the last week, suspended shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal “until further notice” on Wednesday. Other shipping companies are instead routing vessels around the bottom of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope for precaution.

Just as they were when the defensive Operation Prosperity Guardian coalition was formed last month, the Houthis remain undeterred by Wednesday’s warning from the U.S. and 12 other countries. The Houthis issued a defiant statement according to their military spokesman, Yahya Saree.

“The Yemeni armed forces [Houthis] also confirm that any American aggression will not go unanswered or punished,” Saree said on X. “The Yemeni armed forces warn the American enemy or others against any attack or action that represents the protection of commercial ships that go to the Zionist entity.”

Joe Truzman is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah. Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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