Amid the backdrop of the Gaza war, Iranian proxy the Houthis, has stepped up activities in the Red Sea, including strikes on a US vessel.
It has drawn the US into yet another potential conflict in the region as a US Navy warship responded to a distress call from a commercial tanker in the Gulf of Aden that had been seized by the militia.
The Houthis subsequently fired missiles at the USS Mason, which had come to the aid of the hijacked cargo tanker, identified as the Central Park.
US Central Command first released a statement on Sunday claiming that “coalition elements demanded release of the vessel” after coming to its aid. “Subsequently, five armed individuals debarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat. The Mason pursued the attackers resulting in their eventual surrender. The crew of the M/V Central Park is currently safe,” it said.
However, in the early hours of Monday morning local time, it said “two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi controlled areas in Yemen toward the general location of the USS Mason Ason (DDG 87) and M/V Central Park. The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately ten nautical miles from the ships”.
It came as the troops were concluding the response to the M/V Central Park distress call. “There was no damage or reported injuries from either vessel during this incident”, it confirmed, though raising alarms as to what will be next from the Yemeni militia group.
The Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, which has been fighting the group designated a terror group by countries including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, released a statement calling out Iran.
“The Houthi seizure of a vessel in the territorial waters of the Gulf of Aden … is also further evidence that the Houthis are acting as a tool of the Islamic Republic of Iran, obedient to its directives and causing harm to its neighbouring countries.”
Since the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, in which 1,200 mostly civilians were killed and another 240 or more hostages taken to Gaza, proxy activity has heightened. On Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah has been increasing its attacks, while proxies in Syria and Iraq have also fired towards its border.
However, it is the Yemeni proxy, the Houthis, which has been the surprise factor, launching both long-range missiles towards Israel and stepping up activities in the Red Sea.
The US was clear in its support of Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the single most deadly day for Jews since the Holocaust but as the death toll mounts and Gaza’s destruction continues as Israel vows to wipe out Hamas, both the US and Israel have become the new target of Houthi terror.
A container ship managed by an Israeli-controlled company was hit by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean, causing minor damage to the vessel but no injuries, a US defence official said on Saturday.
Earlier this month, the Galaxy Leader was taken to a Yemeni port after the proxy group believed it was owned by an Israeli businessman, though the vessel was operated by Tokyo-based firm Nippon Yusen.
At the time, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to point the finger at Iran. “This is another Iranian act of terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s belligerence against the citizens of the free world, with concomitant international ramifications vis-a-vis the security of global shipping routes,” his office said.
The Southern Transitional Council condemned the “acts of terrorist piracy and calls on the international community to shoulder the grave responsibility of confronting and deterring these threats with the utmost resolve. Houthi actions and persistent terrorist behavior continue to obstruct all peace efforts in the South and Yemen, as well as at the regional level”.
It has reignited the fierce debate over the US redesigning the Houthis, the Biden administration removing the label amidst the humanitarian crisis resulting from years of civil war in Yemen.
It is being weighed at the top levels. “In light of the recent targeting of civilians by the Houthis, and now the piracy of a ship in international waters, we have begun a review of potential terrorist designations, and we’ll be considering other options together with our allies and partners,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Experts agree. “A redesignation of the Iran-supported Houthi organization Ansar Allah [Houthis] is long overdue,” said Matt Zweig, Senior Director of Policy for FDD Action, a US-based think tank.
“For far too long, they have threatened and attacked international shipping and US allies and partners in the region. To more effectively combat their sources of funding — including the regime in Iran — the United States should designate Ansar Allah as a specially designated global terrorist organization and a foreign terrorist organization.”
After last year’s attacks in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates has also been pushing the US to relist the Houthis. UAE and US air defenses prevented mass casualties during three attacks, though the strikes still killed three individuals and injured six.
“The UAE is urging the US to re-list the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization under US law to disrupt their financial networks and foreign support while providing appropriate exceptions to ensure that humanitarian relief can continue unimpeded”, it wrote in an extensive report which noted the threats the group poses to the US as well as the region.