Bab el Mandeb: avoid the opening of a new war front

(To Philip Romeo)

One of the greatest risks to be avoided in the dramatic Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the extension of its radius of action to the rest of the area. A danger that risks materializing following the escalation of attacks in the Red Sea. The launch of missiles and drones by the Yemeni Houthis on ships and cargo ships at sea are already having effects on logistical systems with economic repercussions that could prove to be global in scope.

The action implemented by the Houthis, in fact, places the major shipping companies in obvious difficulties, some of which - Maersk Line, Hapag Lloyd, Mediterranean Shipping Company - have announced that they will give up this route, preferring to circumnavigate Africa, passing through Cape of Good Hope, despite the significant increase in costs and delivery times estimated at approximately 7/10 more days of navigation.

The relevance of the affair and the possible repercussions is evident from the strategic importance of the Bab el Mandeb Strait which, giving access to the Red Sea, and therefore, to the Mediterranean through Suez, constitutes one of the main bottlenecks of global maritime geopolitics. In fact, the commercial and naval routes that connect Asia with Europe and the United States pass through Bab el Mandeb. A stretch of sea, 32 km wide, located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, which separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, whose waters are constantly crossed by ships loaded with manufactured goods and energy products which constitute approximately 30% of the economic flows of the global system and whose seabed is crossed by the network of 15 submarine cables that connect France with Singapore, within which financial transactions, sensitive messages and all other data traveling via the network take place.

At a time when the conflict in the Gaza Strip seems to be moving towards a temporary "ceasefire" and when the major players in the area, above all the Lebanese Hezbollah, are maintaining a low profile which has raised veiled criticism from Hamas , the Yemeni Houthis with this action on the Red Sea have raised the bar to the point of inducing the United States to increase the military presence in the area with the strengthening of the international task force for maritime security led by Bahrain.

In the opinion of authoritative analysts, including Philbrick Yadav, the action implemented by the Houthis, evidently aimed at increasing pressure on Israel to lift the siege on Gaza, would help them both to increase their internal popularity in Yemen of which they control much of the northern territory and where support for the Palestinian cause enjoys widespread popularity, than to obtain a greater return in the peace negotiations underway with the Saudis. A country, Yemen, also shocked by eight long years of war defined by the United Nations "the most serious humanitarian catastrophe since the end of the Second World War". A conflict, today apparently frozen thanks to Omani mediation, the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia but, above all, the latter's desire to escape from the conflict in the face of failure to achieve the objectives after the military intervention begun in 2015. To this end In this regard, it is necessary to consider both that the alignment of the Houthis with Tehran dates back to the events of 2015, in which the Iranian capital showed itself willing to supply a good part of the armaments to the Houthis, but also the fact that the group has the ability to arm itself autonomously thanks to the knowledge inherited from members of the former Yemeni army who joined its side. In essence, the Houthis' dependence on Tehran is not at all a given.

What the Houthis are fighting in Yemen should therefore not be interpreted as one “proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As Angelo Travaglini points out in his volume Yemen Endless drama, the testimony of former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb also appears significant in support of this thesis according to which “Tehran is not able to influence the Houthis, as they are too jealous of their identity.” These, in fact, proud of their Arab identity and their Zaydi Shiism, appear resistant to any subjection and autonomous both in their judgment and in the decisions to be made.

Within this complex scenario, in which various local, regional and global factors and elements are intertwined, the securing of the Bab el Mandeb Strait appears, to date, to be a priority that involves a wide plethora of actors including, undoubtedly, theItaly whose dependence on the sea is equal to a quarter of the national GDP. An artery, the one that passes through the Red Sea, certainly vital for our economy, through which a good part of our sea trade passes and whose obstruction would put us in serious difficulty. Proof of this is the fact that our Navy will participate with the use of the frigate Fasan to the operation Prosperity Guardian together with Great Britain, France, Holland, Spain, Norway, Seychelles. However, as Guido Olimpo points out in the columns of Corriere della Sera, some actors would seem not inclined to a new conflict with the Houthis. Among these, the Saudis and the Emirates, despite being alarmed by the situation due to the conspicuous interests in the logistics sector, but also the Egyptians, who annually collect 9.3 billion dollars from the Suez toll, show reservations about intervening.

China's position is not yet clear although, as Olimpo highlights, its units present in the area with support in the Djibouti base did not respond to requests for help from captains who were targeted.

India has also effectively decided not to join the US initiative to preserve the stability of the region. A new front, in fact, could cause the entire area to explode, which at the moment presents itself as a powder keg also due to the presence of al-Qaeda cells both in Sinai and Yemen where, in particular, they are deeply rooted in the socio-political context.

Meanwhile in Oman the Houthis are committed to a diplomatic solution with "the international parties" which to date remain unknown. This, in addition to calming the situation in the Red Sea, could lead to the achievement of a stable balance within the country whose key element is peace between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

The agreement, towards which the parties now seem to be converging, in addition to establishing a fundamental piece in the disjointed regional mosaic, would avert a broader crisis which would involve the major players, to the point of expanding on a global scale, and from which it would be difficult to return backwards.

Photo: US Navy