The Houthis are cutting off our vital routes: let Uncle Sam take care of it!

(To Antonio Li Gobbi)

For some time, Italians have been hearing about the Houthis (a name probably previously little known to those not interested in geopolitics) and their threats to international maritime traffic.

Let's clarify our ideas, these are not more or less organized criminal groups, which attack oil tankers with small boats, like the piracy off the coast of Somalia against which in 2008 first NATO and then the EU launched contrast operations (the EU, the 'operation Atalanta, is still ongoing and it is not clear whether it is really still needed, whether we forgot to cancel it or whether in any case the EU needs to keep alive at least one military mission that is operational and not just training).

Houthi attacks on ships in transit are conducted with sophisticated means, including drones and helicopters.

The Houthis have effectively controlled a significant part of Yemen for years, including the capital Sana'a, they have their own government authorities and their own armed forces, financed, armed and also trained explicitly by Tehran, which has been using them as a tool in its opposition to Riyadh for twenty years (i.e. since the time of the unfortunate US destabilizing operation in Iraq). Confessional opposition (since the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites and the Saudis are the highest representatives of Sunni Wahhabism) is certain. But here religion also serves (or perhaps above all) to cover geopolitical ambitions of regional leadership.

We all know the commercial importance of the maritime routes that pass through the Red Sea and Suez. The threat of this route becoming unusable translates into costs that are passed on to the end users of the maritime traffic that travels along it (end users who are often we Europeans). Costs due to the excessive lengthening of navigation times for the vessel that decides to take the alternative route to the Cape of Good Hope, or costs due to the rise in insurance prices for the vessel that decides to take the risk on the shorter route.

Bear in mind that, before the crisis, the entire maritime trade of goods (including critical electronic components) between Europe and China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the Indian subcontinent passed through the Red Sea, approximately 30% of global container shipping volumes, approximately 220 thousand tons of grains per day and, above all, approximately 7 million barrels of crude oil per day (crude oil whose price is already clearly rising). An indispensable supply for energy-intensive European societies (especially after cutting our supplies from the Russian Federation in response to the Ukrainian crisis).

For Italy alone it is estimated that the value of import-export transiting annually through the Red Sea exceeds 150 billion euros and which represents approximately four tenths of our maritime trade, or over 80 billion euros per year.

For Italy the problem is even more serious than in other European countries. Not only did a good part of our trade use that route, but the Italian port infrastructures, especially in Northern Italy, serve as the arrival and departure point for goods destined for or coming from Northern Europe. Goods passing through Suez and the Red Sea. Furthermore, if the vessel were to divert to the Cape of Good Hope route it would be easier and more economical to envisage the use of the much superior Northern European port capacities (Hamburg and Rotterdam for example) than of the Italian ones, with all due respect to the ports of Genoa and Trieste and related related activities.

However, it cannot just be a question of "vil money" (however important it is) but here it is also one matter of principle: the protection of free navigation in international waters.

It therefore appears imperative for a nation that lives on maritime traffic (like Italy) to do something to counter the terrorist activity of the Houthis in the Red Sea. At the moment the USA and the United Kingdom, with the support of some other nations, are moving in this direction. Italy?

In this regard, we must also be realistic: in a bottleneck ("choke point" the Anglo-Saxons call it) like Bab el Mandeb (40 km wide and 130 km long) maritime terrorism cannot be effectively countered without striking its bases on the ground and limiting themselves to expensive and not always effective armed convoy escort operations.

Not even the usual whining of not intervening because otherwise the conflict will spread will hold up. The conflict has already spread to the Red Sea since last October (think of the Houthi attacks against Eilat) and has already taken hostage the trade routes essential to Europe and Italy. It was the Houthis and theirs Iranian sponsors to open this new front of conflict, not the USA and Great Britain who, after various warnings, conducted those inevitable ground attacks.

I don't think we can hide and, however convenient it may seem, leave the dirty work to the "Yankee cowboys" alone: ​​we are already listed among the enemies that the Houthis are fighting (they don't care whether or not we sign declarations of support for the operation USA and they don't even care about our do-goodism by sending the ship Volcano to treat a few dozen wounded Gazans).

We are a Western democracy, an ally of the USA, certainly not close to either Russia or Iran, and for this reason we are among the potential targets, whatever we do or, in this specific case, do not do..

On January 10, the UN Security Council approved a resolution condemning the activities of the Houthis (albeit with the abstention of China, Russia, Algeria and Mozambique) and this provides a certain, albeit vague, framework of international legitimacy to the intervention that the USA and UK they are conducting starting from the night between January 11th and 12th.

Beijing did not veto the resolution and its abstention could not fail to be of interest. China, in fact, would also be damaged if European shipping companies were to abandon the Suez route, but in its role as "protector" of Iran and leader of the "Global South" against "star-crossed imperialism stripes” could not approve the resolution and the abstention was probably a compromise between economic interest and relations with Iran. The aid officially provided to the Anglo-Americans by Canada, Australia and, among others, the Netherlands and Bahrain is interesting. In my opinion, the stance taken by an ancient maritime power, firmly and convincingly pro-European, like the Netherlands, which still derives great benefits from the maritime traffic that passes through its ports.

It is presumable that the USA can count on Riyadh's support, albeit not explicitly. Support which, however, could not be made known for obvious reasons (both to be accused of taking a pro-Israel position and to avoid further compromising its relations with the Houthis, with whom it concluded a shaky truce only in 2022 and who threaten the southern border of Saudi Arabia, and especially with their sponsors in Tehran).

It's Italy? A note released by Palazzo Chigi reads: "Italy firmly condemns the repeated attacks by the Houthis against merchant ships in the Red Sea and confirms its firm support for the right of free and safe navigation, in line with international standards. In the face of the unacceptable behavior of the Houthis, the 'Italy supports the operations of allied countries, which have the right to defend their own vessels, in the interests of global trade flows and humanitarian assistance."

That is, if you wanted to be sarcastic, you could say that we are aware that the problem exists, at the moment we are not available to intervene personally, but if someone else does it we, from the stands, give them our "likes" ”.

Easy ironies aside, we need to realize that the matter is absolutely not simple, especially for a country that from 1945 onwards has always had a certain difficulty in developing both its own security and defense policy and an autonomous foreign policy. “The UN asks us, the EU asks us, NATO asks us and we are faithful UN supporters, pro-Europeans and Atlanticists” it was a mantra on which for better or worse we settled, sometimes uncritically. On the other hand, due to understandable historical reminiscences, we have often been ashamed of defending "national interests", as this could be perceived as a component of a worse nationalism.

But “do something”, how and in what context? Here the problem appears even more difficult to address.

Agree to participate in a US-led naval mission (“Prosperity Guardian”), in fact yet another “coalition of the willing”, or rather a coalition in which Washington sets objectives and methods and the others, in fact, adapt? In fact, it would not have been appropriate as this form of cooperation would not have put us in a position to have a real impact on the operational decisions adopted and we could have found ourselves involved, despite ourselves, in actions that we did not agree with.

Given the impact of this form of "maritime terrorism" on a large part of European countries, it would have been desirable to immediately start a NATO naval operation. In fact, the Alliance already has the necessary capabilities available both for the management of the operation (theAllied maritime command of Northwood in the UK) and for the conduct of such a naval operation (the two standing maritime groups). Above all, however, NATO has a proven ability to plan and conduct military operations of this type (as also demonstrated in relation to the fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean with the timely NATO intervention in 2008, when the EU was struggling to put about the operation Atalanta).

The great advantage for Italy of such an option would have been connected to the fact that within NATO all allies have a say in defining the objectives of the operation and methods of intervention (including the thorny problems, in this case, of the rules of engagement and management of any "terrorist" prisoners). Furthermore, such a decision would have forced the Alliance to start dealing with the "Southern Front" and the Wider Mediterranean (of which the Red Sea is an intrinsic part) again. Interest which began to be a bit evanescent after 2014 and which I would say is today, in relation to the Ukrainian crisis, totally absent.

This appears to have been neither desired nor possible. Probably not wanted by the USA itself, for which the creation of a coalition of the willing allows total decision-making autonomy, greater freedom of action and high speed of intervention. Ultimately you can understand them: why go crazy trying to get 31 quarrelsome countries to agree (Sweden is not yet officially a "full" member), when Uncle Sam has to put almost all the arrangements in place?

Furthermore, I believe that the option of a NATO intervention would not even have been realistically possible considering that Ankara would certainly have vetoed it. Furthermore, the entire block of Eastern European countries (in particular the three Baltic republics, Poland and Romania) is today quite reluctant to see NATO commitments that in some way could further attenuate Allied attention from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

And the European Union? Wouldn't it have been a good opportunity to demonstrate that we also existed at a safety level? A parallel and coordinated European mission could be launched with "Prosperity Guardian" or the mandate of the now stale "Atalanta" could be adequately expanded.

It seems that this is being discussed in Brussels. There should be a first meeting on this matter on 16 January with the aim of presenting a proposal to the meeting of Foreign Ministers and then perhaps submitting it to the Heads of State and Government, but for the moment it remains at discussion level and perhaps will remain so until, perhaps, it is no longer worth even discussing it.

It is true, as is highlighted, that the Fremm class frigates Virginio Fasan e Federico Martinengo they are in that area, but they were actually sent in parallel to the US assets. However, they are not part of "Prosperity Guardian" and officially they would be part of "Atalanta", which has another mission in a different area, and if assigned to "Atalanta" they should in theory operate under the operational control of the EU Commander (the force commander is currently a Portuguese rear admiral, while theoperational headquarters di Atalanta is governed, on behalf of the EU, by Spain). So, certainly our ships make a presence, but to provide concrete deterrence they should have rules of engagement adequate to the threat (which in this case would seem higher than that of pirates operating around the Horn of Africa).

Given that it does not appear likely, at least for the moment, that the national authorities will order a "reverse TOA1", or to fully summarize the command and control of the two ships (to assign national tasks or to assign them to "Prosperity Guardian") we can believe that in fact the two frigates continue to carry out the tasks assigned to Atalanta and not the countering of Houthi attacks.

The situation is not simple. The (theoretically ideal) option of intervening in the context of a solid NATO operation unfortunately does not appear possible. The politically attractive option of demonstrating that the EU is there and doing its part does not seem to materialize for the moment and in any case there could be some red lights within the EU too2 which, if they do not prevent the start of a naval operation, can, however, significantly compromise its effectiveness. In any case, the EU does not have well-established planning, command and control structures comparable to those of the Atlantic Alliance and, above all, the same operational mentality.

Joining the "Prosperity Guardian" would certainly expose us to being dragged by decisions taken overseas, but it would allow Italy to be immediately present with an active role in safeguarding our vital interest. Nothing would prevent us, when and if an EU operation was launched, from transferring our naval assets to the EU.

It is obvious that, whatever the command structure of our possible anti-Houthi intervention in the Red Sea, it must also be considered for our UNIFIL contingent on which Hezbollah's reaction could be unleashed. Furthermore, the exchange of artillery and rocket fire that has been going on undisturbed since October between Israel and Hezbollah, without UNIFIL doing or being able to do anything to counter it, should also make us think about the real usefulness of continuing this mission, which the Italia has participated since 1978 and has become one of the major contributors of forces since 2006.

I repeat, the situation is complex and there are no simple or risk-free solutions. Furthermore, if Italy really wants to have a role in the Mediterranean, in political, economic and even military terms, on a topic such as freedom of navigation in the Red Sea (which is an essential appendix of the Mediterranean) it cannot limit itself to waiting for decisions taken in Brussels (whether within the EU or NATO). Furthermore, Italy, as I wrote, is penalized by the impracticability of the Suez route much more than its European partners that have ports on the Atlantic or the North Sea.

Another consideration is mandatory regarding the security architecture on which we are based.

We see that NATO has vulnerabilities (due to its unanimity decision-making system) that can easily block its decisions indefinitely. NATO decision-making processes and the presence within the Alliance of Turkey, which has interests in the Wider Mediterranean that are often opposed to ours, may mean that Italy cannot always rely on this Alliance to safeguard its vital interests.

At the same time, for the moment it seems clear that the EU does not have either the military capacity or the political will to credibly replace NATO, at least on the Southern Front.

These considerations should lead us to consider the need to equip ourselves with a military capacity that can allow us to defend our vital interests even autonomously where the need to resort to military instruments for their protection is not shared in these two multinational forums..

This concept, moreover, already identified in unsuspecting times by the "Military Policy Guidelines" of the Ministry of Defense of 19803 (defense minister the socialist Lelio Lagorio) and which today, in a much more fluid situation and with much less cohesive alliances than they were 44 years ago, deserves to be revived.

In the absence of the possibility of operating in equal contexts (EU or NATO), we may find ourselves having to choose between standing by and following the powerful American ally to safeguard what are also our interests. In this case, however, in a position that cannot be defined as exactly equal.

In the specific case, given the relevance for our country of safeguarding freedom of navigation, perhaps it could have been worthwhile to intervene alongside the USA and UK, assuming the consequent responsibilities and risks.

Whatever decision you make, the tendency to balance can be dangerous. Believing yourself to be an expert tightrope walker when in reality you are not or are not in a position to be so could lead to ruinous (image) falls.

1 TOA: Transfer of Authority: formal act with which a nation normally grants command and control authority over its own assets to an allied command for limited times and for the fulfillment of specific, well-defined missions. With the "reverse TOA" full command of the unit is resumed by the nation.

2 Consider that France and Spain did not even sign the Joint Statement of January 3 condemning the Houthis for their "illegal attacks" in the Red Sea. Joint declaration signed by 13 countries (including only 5 EU countries: Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark)

3 The directive considered that there could be "outside the NATO area of ​​competence"emergencies that affected individual countries of the Alliance for which, however, "the mechanisms of the military agreement (NATO) do not operate)”. She went on to say that “the Ministry of Defense intends to give its maximum contribution so that our country acquires and develops a catalysing role in regional interests to contribute with other Mediterranean countries... to the creation of a more stable balance in the area for the purpose of guaranteed common security"

Photo: US Navy