Red Sea crisis: a "defensive" operation is not necessary

(To Philip Del Monte)

Italy will be present in the Red Sea to counter attacks by the Yemeni Houthis against merchant ships with the multi-role frigate Fasan of the Navy. This is a prudent choice, also considering the fact that Nave Fasan has already participated in anti-piracy operations in Somalia.

The Ministry of Defense wanted to highlight that the Italian frigate will be stationed in the Red Sea not as part of the Operation Prosperity Guardian led by the United States, but responding to the dictates of an already existing mission authorized by Parliament. Rome responded, therefore, "to a specific request for the protection of national interests, received from Italian shipowners".

Yet there would have been nothing strange in admitting that Italy, which "will do its part", as said by the Minister of Defense, Guido Crosetto, sent Nave Fasan in the Red Sea - ahead of schedule - to protect freedom of navigation and trade routes from Houthi attacks, just as it would not have been strange to integrate one's ship into the military system of Prosperity Guardian, which, in addition to the United States, also included France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Greece, Canada, Spain, Bahrain and the Seychelles. Countries that have either direct interests in the area or that have had their ships involved in attacks by the Houthis.

Despite the regulatory differences, in fact, and it could not be otherwise, the frigate Virginio Fasan it will be fully integrated into the naval team of the US-led "coalition of the willing".

It remains to be understood what the "borders" of the US-led mission and its Italian "offshoot" will be. In fact, if the coalition ships will only carry out patrolling, escorting and countering attacks conducted with missiles and drones (and also boardings? In more complex cases to counter) or if they will also conduct offensive actions against the missile launch stations from Houthi militia cruise in northern Yemen.

The question remains open since simple escort actions of ships and/or convoys (and the idea of ​​organizing them would allow for greater deterrence capacity on the part of the Western coalition) and "passive" defense may not allow the achievement of the result which is that of eradicate the threat. The episode of Squeak, Norwegian ship hit by a Yemeni missile, teaches that patrolling specific dangerous routes does not eliminate the risks for merchant ships sailing there.

On the contrary, an "active defense" or openly offensive action against enemy missile launch stations could expose not only the naval-military coalition but the entire region to repercussions that are difficult to calculate at present. The attacks against merchant shipping in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb by the Houthis constitutes a phenomenon of "regionalization" of the war between Israel and Hamas and implies the involvement of powers which, as "observers" (although, however, interested) can become actors of the conflict in all respects.

The direct involvement of coastal states in the operation was one of the objectives of Washington and its European partners in the preparatory diplomatic phase of Prosperity Guardian, but significant results were not obtained. Egypt which, despite having enormous interests at stake along the trade routes towards Suez, is hesitating, and the Gulf States which, despite participating in various multilateral initiatives for maritime security, entering into Prosperity Guardian they would find themselves stuck in the difficult situation of having to maintain freedom of navigation in the Red Sea by siding against those who wave the flag of Palestinian claims.

The United States has attempted to make the Arab powers responsible, which have extensive economic interests in the wide band of the Mediterranean ("enlarged" even for them) and the Indian Ocean, which inevitably passes through the security of the Red Sea; but the involvement of local powers would also have been essential to avoid the revival of a "gunboat diplomacy" which would contribute to exacerbating the anti-Western positions of a significant part of the Middle East.

But, net of all considerations, as he rightly has written by Gino Lanzara, the use of military instruments is practically obligatory in this scenario, where a more powerful and fearsome force remains the only functional leverage to contain crazy trajectories like that of the Houthis. The risks for the world economy but, also looking in the Italian "backyard", especially for the Mediterranean one, are enormous.

British Petroleum has suspended its shipments in the Red Sea, preferring to circumnavigate Africa, and other important companies such as Maersk Line, Hapag Lloyd and Mediterranean Shipping Company have already done or will do the same, because the Yemeni militias allied with Hamas and Iran ( although it is necessary to delve deeper into Tehran's real ability to influence some specific choices of the Houthis and the varied Resistance Front) they put considerable capital at risk.

The rediscovery of the "Vasco da Gama route" passing through the Cape, longer than that passing through Bab el Mandeb and Suez but currently less dangerous, could put trade in the Mediterranean into crisis if insecurity were perceived as endemic . The capitalization of shipping companies has risen by 22 billion dollars since the beginning of the Red Sea crisis, reaching almost 190 billion, the result of a reduced supply of ships caused by the lengthening of travel times.

With respect to other significant anti-piracy and patrolling actions on dangerous routes, see Operation Atalanta along the coasts of the Horn of Africa, the almost ready Prosperity Guardian United States (more allies) in the Red Sea should have different characteristics, more linked to the "combat" dimension, also because the phenomenon that generated the emergency is different.

Photo: US Navy