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US push to expand anti-Houthi coalition miffs allies

US push to expand anti-Houthi coalition miffs allies

The Pentagon said Spain is member of Operation Prosperity Guardian. It is not

Analysis | Middle East

U.S. efforts to cobble together an international coalition to protect the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea against attacks by the Yemeni Houthi militias who demand an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war are stoking tensions with European allies.

On January 8, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown called his Spanish counterpart Teodoro Lopez Calderon to, according to the official U.S. readout, discuss the “ongoing illegal Houthi attacks on commercial vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea.” Pointedly, Brown “reiterated the U.S. desire to work with all nations who share an interest in upholding the principle of freedom of navigation and ensuring safe passage for global shipping.”

But according to recent reporting by veteran Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero, Washington has been pushing Spain a bit harder. U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro recently called the Spanish ambassador in Washington Santiago Cabanas to urge his government to join the U.S.-led anti-Houthi coalition, Operation Guardian Prosperity, and, according to Cembrero’s reporting, even went so far as issuing a deadline to Madrid to deliver an answer by January 11.

So far Madrid has refused to join the U.S.-led coalition and put its soldiers and ships under the command of Pentagon’s CENTCOM in the Red Sea. During an announcement of the coalition’s formation last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Spain was among the members without, apparently, consulting with the Spanish government, causing considerable irritation in Madrid.

To smooth the friction, President Biden called Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to emphasize the Houthi threat. If his intention was to nudge Madrid closer to the U.S. position, it clearly failed: Spain refused to join the U.S. and a number of allies in the joint statement they issued on January 3 warning the Houthis about the consequences of their continued attacks on the maritime freedom.

The Spanish government’s position did not go unnoticed in Sana’a: the Houthi vice minister for foreign affairs Hussein Al-Ezzi expressed appreciation for Madrid’s “distancing from American and British lies on the freedom of navigation.” Cembrero also reported that one unexpected collateral benefit of the Spanish government’s stance was the release by Iran, the Houthis’ chief external backer, of a Spanish citizen kept in captivity in Tehran for 15 months.

Although the Spanish government never explained the precise motives of its refusal to join “Prosperity Guardian,” Madrid, while having unequivocally condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel, has also been vocal in denouncing Israel’s “indiscriminate killings” in Gaza, which even provoked a diplomatic crisis between Spain and Israel.

The protection of the maritime freedom in the Red Sea is indeed a legitimate concern: nearly 12% of the global trade and $1 trillion worth of goods each year passes through it. The disruption of this route forces the shipping companies to divert their itineraries which causes delays and adds costs. Yet the Houthis also made it clear that their attacks will end when Israel’s halts its bombing campaign in Gaza. Indeed, there were no Houthi attacks on the international shipping prior to October 7, 2023.

In this context, the Spanish government seems to have calculated that joining the anti-Houthi coalition would rather mean fighting the symptoms, and not the root cause of the worsening conflict in the Middle East, namely, Israel’s pursuit of maximalist military goals in Gaza and its seeming attempts to expand the war to Lebanon.

By any reasonable estimation, taking the fight to the Houthis would not result in a quick, swift military victory. The movement only emerged stronger after the nine years-long war Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition it led waged against it, with a lavish military, diplomatic and intelligence support from the U.S., UK and other Western nations. The Iran-backed Houthis have also developed considerable home-made drone and missile capabilities, with a proven capacity to hit Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel and Western military assets in the region.

No war on the Houthis would, thus, be limited to some surgical strikes. With a predictable failure of such strikes to “neutralize” the militia, there is a high probability of a mission creep that would lead the coalition to attack targets onshore in Yemen, and that, in turn, could lead to an indirect collision with Iran.

The Spanish government’s reluctance to assume the risks of being embroiled in a likely pointless war against Houthis and their Iranian backers is understandable, particularly given that Madrid also wants a ceasefire in Gaza.

While Spain may have been the most explicit in its reluctance to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Houthis, it is by no means the only U.S. ally harboring reservations. Notably, France, the EU’s militarily most capable state, refused to join the White House-led January 3 statement. Italy, although signed that statement, is not committing itself to fighting under the U.S. command. Other NATO allies, like Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, only agreed to send token military personnel. In the end, the whole project looks more like a U.S.–UK undertaking than a real coalition of allies and like-minded partners.

Instead of causing division and stoking tensions with its allies over the prospects of a highly questionable (to say the least) military operation, the Biden administration should deploy its leverage to get Israel to agree to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and abandonment of any temptation to expand the war to Lebanon. If the Houthis continue their attacks in the Red Sea after a ceasefire, then the U.S. and its allies will have full legitimacy to strike back. For now, however, alienating allies like Spain and France by pandering to the most extreme Israeli government in history certainly isn’t a price worth paying.

Components of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Special Operations Capable (SOC) are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to help ensure maritime security and stability in the Middle East region, 10/27/23. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Moises Sandoval)

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