The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen has said the group attacked a Saudi-flagged oil tanker in the Red Sea, while the insurgents claim they struck one of the country's warships. The incident does come after the Iranian-backed movement said it could decide to strike at commercial shipping and otherwise look to hamper maritime movement through the region if the Saudis and their allies did not withdraw from the area around the last rebel-held port city of Al Hudaydah.
According to Saudi Arabian Colonel Turki Al Maliki, the top spokesman for the coalition in Yemen, the attack came on April 3, 2018, but resulted in only superficial damage to the ship in question. At some point, a coalition warship intervened and accompanied the ship as it continued North in the Red Sea. He did not name the tanker or the warship involved and did not say whether or not the naval vessel had been escorting the commercial ship from the beginning. He also did not say what type of weapon the Houthis employed in this case.
If the Saudi version of events is confirmed, this would be the second rebel attempt to damage or destroy commercial vessel since the beginning of the year. On Jan. 6, 2018, the Houthis attacked another tanker, but did not cause any damage. In that case, they reportedly used an unmanned, explosive filled boat.
The group group have used these unmanned craft in a number of previous attacks and attempted attacks on naval vessels, including against the Saudi frigate Al Madinah near Al Hudaydah in 2017. The group has also used anti-ship missiles and sea mines to attack other coalition ships, as well as American warships in response to the U.S. government's logistical support and other military aid to Saudi Arabia.
After the January attack, Saleh Al Samad, the head of the Houthi government in Yemen, said the group might increasingly pursue "strategic options" in its fight against the Saudis and their partners. This threat included the possibility of "cutting off the Red Sea and international navigation," he said in comments relayed through a visiting United Nations delegation.
For years now, there have been concerns that the Houthis, or their various partners in Yemen, could become a serious threat to maritime trade in the region as the Saudi-led coalition stepped up its own campaign against the group and worked to more tightly encircle rebel-held areas. There have been sporadic reports of attacks on commercial ships, which may have been more criminal than military in nature, since at least 2016.
“We cannot rule out the possibility of Huthis [sic] attacking commercial shipping,” the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) noted in one infographic dated Oct. 10, 2016, a heavily redacted copy of which we at The War Zone previously obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. “Starting in early October 2016, there have been a series of reported attacks and advisories issued to the commercial maritime industry,” another ONI report from December 2016 added.
In addition to deliberate attacks on ships, military or commercial, the Houthis have also been employing improvised naval mines near the Mandeb Strait, a major trade route that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. These weapons pose a more indiscriminate threat and could help the group make good on Samad's threat to impede "international navigation."
That being said, there is also a possibility that the rebels primary target was actually the escorting warship in this case. In the past, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have issued almost entirely contradictory statements about particular incidents and it can be difficult, if not impossible to independently verify the details.
What we do know is that the Houthis do have access to anti-ship missiles, drone boats, and naval mines, among other increasingly advanced weaponry, and that they have been and still are a real threat military and commercial marine traffic in and around the Mandeb Strait. With continued and potentially increasing support from Iran, the group's ability to launch stand-off attacks at sea and on land could further improve in the near term.
In addition, the Houthis have also stepped up ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia in recent months, as well as presenting an increasing challenge against Saudi-led coalition aircraft using surface-to-air missiles. In both cases, the Saudis, as well as the United States, have accused Iran of either supplying the rebels with those weapons or aiding in their local fabrication.
However, attacks on international shipping could threaten to escalate the conflict into a broader regional issue if ostensibly neutral countries, such as the United States, decide to begin escorting commercial vessels through the area. The Houthis may be unable to readily discriminate between Saudi coalition and other foreign ships, or may simply see the increased military presence as implicitly supportive of Saudi Arabia's campaign, as has been the case with American warships.
Whatever the exact details of this latest incident are, it seems clear, at least so far, that any fears of prompting an even more ferocious Saudi response or provoking a wider conflict have not caused the Houthis to shy away from attacking ships in the area.
Update: 12:20pm PST—
It looks like some vessel tracking gurus have figured out which ship that was targeted:
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