The Houthi attack on Strinda and the hypothesis of maritime "regionalization" of the Gaza war

(To Philip Del Monte)

The Norwegian cargo ship Monday night Squeak was hit by an anti-ship cruise missile launched from the territory of northern Yemen controlled by the Houthi militias, allies of Hamas and Iran. The ship, owned by the Norwegian shipowner Mowincknel Chemical Tankers, had loaded vegetable oil and biofuels in Malaysia, destined for the port of Venice. The goods are destined for Eni's biorefineries. The ship was due to pick up a cargo at the port of Ashdod, Israel, in January. This is the reason, the Houthis explained, why the ship was hit.

To respond to requests for help from Squeak, whose crew was trying to put out the fire that broke out on board after the missile fell, was the American destroyer Mason (photo), while the French Marine Nationale announced that it had shot down a drone that threatened the Norwegian ship. After the United States and the United Kingdom, Norway has now joined in condemning the attacks against civilian ships.

Despite having claimed no victims and with the cargo safe, the attack conducted by the Houthis against the Strinda opens a new chapter in the war in Gaza, constituting, in fact, a "regionalisation". To be affected by these events is the stretch of sea of ​​the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, to all intents and purposes a "bottleneck", which has now become dangerous to cross for merchant shipping heading towards Israel.

It is true that the Iranians do not have, nor could they have, total control over the strategic and tactical choices of the complex network of militias that make up their instrument for conducting proxy wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is equally plausible that they were aware of the Houthis' desire to participate in the conflict against Israel from the beginning. Without forgetting that, in fact, attacking Israel means for the Houthis to also "keep track" of the war in Yemen waged against Saudi Arabia. Therefore, internal Yemeni issues and external regional events come together in the direct participation of the Houthis in the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas.

The substantial difference in the attack on Strinda, compared to the missile attacks directed against Israeli territory, which began in early November, is that the military technologies of the Yemeni militiamen, which cannot worry either Israel or its Western allies - see the US ships and French ships that cross in the waters facing the Jewish State – are dangerous for merchant ships.

In fact, the Houthis have made it known that any merchant ship can be considered a target if directed towards Israel, regardless of "when" it actually docks in the ports of the Jewish state. No flag will guarantee the safety of the shipping, as the objective of the Yemeni Zaydi militia - and, with it, of Tehran and Hamas - is to strangle Israel's trade, pushing shipowners not to take the risk of sending ships to those waters, with the possibility of losing them together with the load of goods.

A situation is occurring which is not too different from that connected to the events of Greek piracy in the Mediterranean and the Aegean during the Greek war of independence (1821-1830), in particular in the most difficult phase for the revolutionary forces, between 1821 and 1827, when not only isolated ships, but also teams of the Greek navy – essentially a consortium of private shipowners – engaged in piracy, attacking not only Ottoman ships, but also neutral merchant vessels.

Net of the purely economic issue connected to the activity of prey, absent in the case of the Houthis, the strategy of the Yemeni militiamen has a political factor in common with the Greek piracy of the early 800th century: the threat of indiscriminate attacks against merchant ships of any country , without any type of flag guarantee, certainly serves to damage Israeli trade, but also to force many of the countries that currently support the Jewish State to review their position, pushing Tel Aviv-Jerusalem to loosen the blockade of Gaza. For the Houthis, in fact, the missile attacks against neutral shipping are the consequence of Israel's prevention of medical aid reaching Gaza. The same thing was done by the Greek "politicians" linked to piracy, who thought that by also attacking ships flying the British or US flag of the Ionian Islands (formerly Venetian possessions, then a British protectorate until 1864), generally considered a "safe conduct" by shipowners and sailors, would have forced London to intervene in favor of the Greek cause.

The calculation, in the Greek case, was wrong because, given the enormous commercial losses (estimated at 4 million francs for Austria, 900.000 for Great Britain and 400.000 for France, just to name the states most affected) caused by pirates, the powers reacted by sending military naval teams to the Adriatic and Aegean, eradicating the phenomenon. Operations in which the Royal Savoy-Ligurian Navy also successfully participated.

In the case of Bab el Mandeb, the attacks on neutral merchant ships with missiles and drones by the Houthis, if they cannot cause - nor, probably, do they want - the same economic shortfall, could, however, generate a situation of insecurity in the Red Sea such as to push someone to re-discuss the times and methods of Western support for Israel (which is already surrounded by exceptions and specifications).

Furthermore, as has been highlighted by many parties, given the high strategic importance of Bab-el-Mandeb - certified by the hyper-militarization of Djibouti, where there are bases of many foreign powers, including Italy - it is not excluded that to guarantee the safety of isolated ships and convoys a decision will be made to strengthen the naval presence in the area. This would be one of the most accredited hypotheses of "regionalization" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would thus emerge from its "restricted" dimension to also touch the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

Photo: US Navy