Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
With the war in Ukraine soon to enter its third year and Israel’s retaliatory action against Hamas in Gaza now in its third month, it has been a far from peaceful start to 2024. Adding to the sense of permacrisis, just over a week ago came a joint US-UK attack on military targets controlled by Houthi militia forces in Yemen.
]Mark Twain said that “God created war so Americans would learn geography.” These days, not too many Brits would be able to point to the port city and former British colony of Aden on an atlas.
But from 1839, it was one of the empire’s key staging posts. Halfway between Britain and India, it was an ideal refuelling point for ships to take on coal. Its importance to Britain’s trade and imperial interests increased with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
With independence almost a century later in 1967, Aden was folded into the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Following decades of political upheaval, institutional failure and intermittent conflict, today’s Yemen comes second out of 179 countries on the Fragile States Index. In control of swathes of the country, the Islamist Houthis embody Hobbesian warlordism.
Its geography gives Yemen strategic significance. This southwestern corner of the Arabia Peninsula lies on both the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, “one of the most critical routes for global trade” according to the International Maritime Organisation. Until very recently, about 15 per cent of international shipping sailed through the waterways.
Since mid-November, Houthi forces have targeted merchant ships, particularly those near the 16-mile-wide Bab el-Mandeb strait. More than 20 missile, rocket and drone attacks were launched against commercial vessels: the Japan-registered MV Galaxy Leader and its 25 crew members was seized. Shipping companies, including Maersk, have diverted away from the waters.
Formed as a deterrent, a multinational US-led naval task force itself came under fire. On 9 January a barrage of missiles and drones targeted its warships, including HMS Diamond.
This was “the biggest attack on the Royal Navy in decades”, Rishi Sunak told Parliament. It prompted a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Houthis’ action, which also “takes note of the right of Member States, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”
Last week’s Anglo-American military action was both legal and legitimate. “The most extensive air raid the US had mounted since 2003,” reports analyst Prof Michael Clarke, it also involved RAF Typhoons flying from their base at Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Yet Jeremy Corbyn and other usual suspects were quick to condemn the strikes. The Houthis have repeatedly claimed that they were only attacking Israel-linked shipping. Stop the War parrots that the militia are “in support of the Palestinians” and “they will stop the attacks if there is a ceasefire in Gaza”.
The more cynical of us have not ruled out that the Houthis are using the Palestinians as a pretext. Perhaps, like the Somali pirates who plagued the Red Sea from the early 2000s, they wish to extort money from ship owners. And an Islamist, anti-Israel message is an easy way to garner support across the Middle East, while stifling questions about corruption and the diversion of international aid.
Recent and not-so-recent history highlights the economic damage that can be wrought by interruptions to international maritime trade and global supply chains.
In March 2021, the Ever Given ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal for six days. Japanese-owned, Taiwan-leased, UK-insured and Indian crewed, it was flagged in Panama. It was loaded with more than 17,000 containers. Some 400 vessels, representing an estimated £7bn of global trade a day, were held up.
Back in 1956, following Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal and the subsequent British military action, the humiliated Eden/Macmillan government had to impose petrol rationing and extra fuel duty. The “Suez shilling” led to widespread inflation in the following year, hitting everything from the cost of fish and chips to taxi fares.
Operation Prosperity Guardian is well-named. Since the Red Sea attacks, commercial ships are being forced to re-route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, adding a week and millions of pounds to a voyage. As the Suez Crisis highlighted, a rise in the cost of shipping hits the cost of living.
Opponents of military action against the Houthis seem to care little about rising prices in middle Britain. However, voters support the Yemen strikes, according to YouGov. Overall, 53 per cent are in favour, rising to 72 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019.
Given the UK’s unhappy withdrawal from Aden in 1967 after four years of counterinsurgency, as well as the Saudis’ more recent ill-starred intervention in Yemen, we can be thankful that there is no prospect of Western boots on the ground.
Last Friday, the Prime Minister signed a joint UK-Ukraine agreement on Security Cooperation and pledged an extra £2.5bn in support to Kyiv. In a speech on Monday, Grant Shapps warned that “old enemies are reanimated. New foes are taking shape. Battle lines are being redrawn.”
Less brothers-in-arms, the Houthis are perhaps the distant cousins-in-arms of Iran. Along with Hamas and Hezbollah, they are perceived to be part of Tehran’s informal anti-Israel, anti-West “Axis of Resistance”. This week, the Biden administration u-turned, and like its Trumpian predecessor, and designated the Houthis a terrorist group.
Houthi supporters are Iran-adjacent, presumably content that Tehran is supplying drones to Moscow to attack Ukraine.
Britain’s commitment to maintaining global peace and security is welcome. But it sits uneasily with reports of a recruitment and retention crisis in the Armed Forces, including in the Royal Marines.
And while our Armed Forces once again defend Western interests east of Suez, we witness weekly mass demonstrations of anti-Western sentiment on the streets of Britain’s cities. As a former American president stated, you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists. With Britain involved in military action, it’s time to choose.