The United States announced on Tuesday (19) the creation of a multinational task force to safeguard the transit of merchant ships through the Red Sea, where large shipping companies were forced to divert their routes to avoid attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The group, in civil war against the local government since 2014, is funded by Iran and, like Tehran, supports Hamas in its war against Israel. In the ten weeks of the conflict, the rebels have fired missiles and drones both at Israeli territory and attacked and even hijacked a ship near its coast.
The announcement, which was widely expected, was made by US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, who was in Israel the day before and this Tuesday is visiting Bahrain, one of the countries that will be part of the task force.
Austin spoke to 40 defense ministers via videoconference, asking for support for the initiative. So far, in addition to the small Arab country, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the Seychelles islands have stated that they will collaborate.
The announcement has not changed the mood for now. A Houthi spokesman said there would be new attacks, and that they aim to target vessels with some type of connection to Israel, which is not true in practice. There were two new incidents reported this Tuesday, but with no apparent damage to ships.
Shipping companies, in turn, continued to divert their ships from the region. “We have faith that a solution allowing return using the Suez Canal and transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will be introduced in the near future, but at this point it remains difficult to determine exactly when this will occur,” Danish Maersk said in a statement. note this Tuesday.
Maersk and MSC, which also diverted its ships, account for around 50% of the global shipping market. Nine other large companies, such as Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd and Taiwan’s Evergreen, have done the same so far.
Furthermore, at least one major oil and gas operator, the British BP, suspended the transit of its tankers in the region, the shortest route between Persian Gulf producers and Europe. Everyone will now circumnavigate Africa instead of going through the Suez Canal in Egypt, which adds an average of a week to their journeys.
For now, this is reflected in immediate operating costs, but the fear in the market is that the prolongation of the situation will directly affect the prices of oil and other products. A serious disruption of production chains, as seen in the pandemic, is however not expected.
According to the consultancy Vortexa, told Reuters, the crisis makes a crude oil transport trip diverted from Suez up to 25% more expensive at first. Many ships will have to turn around. The price of a barrel rose 1.83% on Monday, when the crisis became evident.
The canal, which generates R$50 billion annually in transit tolls for Egypt, is the route for 9% of international oil and liquefied gas trade. This Tuesday, the Suez Canal Authority released a statement saying it was monitoring the situation, and said that since November 19, 2,128 ships had passed through the 192 km route built in the 19th century.
Until the carriers’ decision, only 55 had changed course due to the threats. Many ships now have armed guards and most try to mask their position electronically when passing near Yemen, particularly the dreaded Bab al-Mandab Strait, the Wailing Gate.
There are already multinational task forces acting in the region against pirates, mainly from Somalia, so the logistics of the so-called Guardian of Prosperity Operation should not be complex. “It looks like they are rebranding Task Force 153, focusing on the region,” said naval analyst Nick Childs of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London).
Since 2002, the 40 countries Austin addressed have operated Combined Maritime Forces from the same Bahrain from which he spoke. “This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” said Austin.
The US, in addition to the ships usually in the region under the control of the country’s Central Command, deployed two groups of aircraft carriers to the area in support of Israel to dissuade Iran and its allies from acting against the Jewish State in the war.
One of them is in the Mediterranean and the other, circulating between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, with destroyers from its formation in action in the Red Sea — where 12% to 15% of international maritime trade passes.
There is an extra reason for the US’s multinational motivation, however. The country’s largest base in the Middle East is in Djibouti, a small African country whose coastline is at one point just 26 km away from Yemen. This makes the installation, Camp Lammonier, particularly vulnerable to Houthi attacks.
The rebels have already shown effectiveness in launching cruise missiles and drones against Eilat, the Israeli south, a target 1,500 km away. They did no damage because there were Western warships shooting down the shells on the way and Israel’s formidable anti-aircraft defense waiting for the attacks.
But they could cause a lot of damage in Dijbuti, and also make the local government rethink its policy of hosting foreign bases, such as the first military installation that China established abroad, not far from the American one.
And Camp Lammonier is the largest American drone center in the region, a vital instrument for Washington’s interests. This, alongside the desire to avoid further escalation with Iran, are the central reasons why the US does not directly bomb Houthi bases, as would be the practice.