De-escalation and restraint are needed to resolve the Red Sea crisis

The strikes indicate a lack of strategic wisdom from the U.S. and the UK on approaching security dynamics in the Middle East.

U.S. and British naval attacks on Houthi military sites in Yemen have exasperated the already fragile situation in the Middle East and can potentially ignite a tinderbox by compromising international trade and navigation. Instead of resolving multiple crises in the Middle East including the Gaza war through negotiations and dialogue, both the U.S. and UK administrations opted to attack Houthi targets in Yemen with warships launching Tomahawk Cruise Missiles and fighter jets in 16 sites including the capital, Sanaa, and the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. Such strikes mark a dangerous escalation and an expansion of conflict in the Middle East with reprisal attacks from Houthis expected and regional economic shocks becoming inevitable.

The strikes indicate a lack of strategic wisdom from the U.S. and the UK on approaching security dynamics in the Middle East. They point out how the existential crisis in Gaza has expanded towards the south of the region and has worsened the humanitarian quagmire in Yemen.

Three years ago, the Houthis had called for dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition under the auspices of the United Nations or through international participation of countries such as Russia, Germany, the Gulf States and China. In 2023, however, the United States and the United Kingdom are upending any chances for diplomacy to flourish.

The absence of diplomacy and communication is precisely what China’s Foreign Ministry indicated on January 12 when calling on all relevant parties to “exercise restraint to prevent the [Yemen] conflict from expanding” while maintaining open lines of communication.

By emphasizing the “security and stability” in the Red Sea amid existing economic shockwaves from the Gaza crisis, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning stated that the Red Sea remains “an important international trade route for goods and energy,” so she hopes all sides act responsibly and in accordance with the common interests of the international community.

China’s stance on the airstrikes is on merit. The existing reality is that trade in the Red Sea in 2024 is bound to be several months away from returning to normal, according to Vincent Clerc, CEO of shipping giant Maersk. Persistent tensions and attacks will impact shipments of oil, food products, liquid natural gas and grain exports, which affect both Europe and Asia. Countries most affected by such trade disruptions include Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Jordan and Greece as 40 percent of trade between Asia and Europe passes through the Red Sea waterways.

Prolonged tensions also explain why shipping companies such as Maersk, MSC and Hapag-Lloyd initially opted to ground their operations. The U.S. and UK naval attacks on Houthi targets only worsened the situation with a spike in oil prices and disruptions in trade becoming more pronounced. This is ironic as the Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak administrations have justified their strikes on the premise of securing freedom of navigation and international trade.

After the strikes, the European benchmark Brent crude oil jumped by more than 3 percent, which surpassed the $80 per barrel previously on ICE Futures Europe. Similarly, West Texas Intermediate crude rose by more than 3 percent to more than $75 per barrel.

As a result, the decision by the United States and the United Kingdom to ignore the implications of expanding the scope of conflict in the Middle East is shortsighted and myopic. Both the regional and global economy as well as the security situation has been compromised particularly as the Houthis have vowed to respond.

The United States security establishment chose to ignore previous instances of militias and political entities such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq becoming increasingly emboldened after the death of Sayyed Raza Mousavi by an Israeli airstrike in December 2023. Reprisal attacks came in the form of drones targeting Israeli territory.

With the United States and the United Kingdom now resorting to airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen, American diplomacy efforts to avoid an all-out confrontation between groups such as Hezbollah with Israel might miserably fail particularly, as the crisis in Gaza continues unabated. This will inevitably have a negative impact on international navigation, trade, oil prices and economic stability.

The U.S. decision to launch strikes has also been condemned by its traditional allies in the Middle East including Türkiye, Saudi Arabia and Oman, which demonstrates the severity of the issue at hand.

Hence, only through de-escalation and restraint can the maintenance of international shipping lanes be secured, peace in the Middle East ensured and proxy warfare avoided.

From our partner CGTN

Hamzah Rifaat Hussain
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain is a host for ThinkTech Hawaii.