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Houthis Hooliganism: India Amidst Untested Waters

It’s been over a hundred days, and the Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t seem to end anytime soon. On the contrary, the conflict has expanded and taken the shape of a wider geopolitical chessboard. Several geopolitical observers believe this conflict can potentially trigger widespread unrest and set the entire Middle East on fire. Prima facie, it appears, there is Israel backed by the West on one end and Iran and its proxies on the other. Thanks to Iran and its wide range of proxies in the region, this conflict has broken out in Gaza. The Red Sea has emerged as a new friction point outside Gaza, where the Houthis have declared to seize and restrict any cargo ship to or from Israel. Needless to say, this has disrupted international commerce and globalised this conflict. Here, we’ll dig into the implications of this hooliganism and the steps taken by India to counter it.

THE HOUTHIS REBELS: IRAN’S AXIS OF RESISTANCE

The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia militant organisation in Yemen that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, emerged in the 1990s. It forms a pivotal part of Iran’s axis of resistance in the Middle East. Despite negation from Iran, it has been found on several occasions that the Houthis are backed by Iran financially and militarily. The Houthis work in tandem with Iran’s objective of expanding its influence in the region. Currently, the Houthis control Yemeni capital Sanaa, which was captured in 2014, and has dominated much of north Yemen since 2016. The group is headed by Abdul-Malik Badruldeen al-Houthi, also known as Abi Jibril, a Yemeni politician and religious leader. The Houthis are known to be a battle-hardened militia that’s been fighting against the Saudi-led Arab Alliance since 2014, resulting in an acute humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

THE HEAD OF THE HOUTHIS
Abdul-Malik Badruldeen al-Houthi.

THE HOUTHIS SHOWDOWN: RED SEA ON RED ALERT

The Houthis, along with other proxies of Iran like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, have been militarily involved against Israel since the inception of this conflict. Collectively, they form Iran’s axis of resistance in the Middle East. Where Hamas and Hezbollah have boots on the ground against Israel, the Houthis have been active in the Red Sea. They declared to target any cargo or military ship linked to Israel, pressuring Tel Aviv to end its war on Gaza. On November 18, 2023, the Houthis captured a cargo ship named the Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea. Although it was operated by a Japanese company, it was owned by an Israeli businessman. This ship took off from Turkey and was headed to India. Since then, the Houthis have targeted many ships with cruise missiles, drones, and anti-ship ballistic missiles.

The footage, shared by the Houthi movement’s TV channel Al Masirah, shows the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader car carrier in the Red Sea. 

These attacks took place in the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Some of these attacks include the following:

  • December 11, 2023: A cruise missile hit the tanker named Strinda sailing from Malaysia to Suez. The Houthis claimed it was headed for Israel, while its owner said it was en route to Italy.
  • December 18, 2023: An anti-ship ballistic missile drone fired at a Norwegian tanker named Swan Atlantic. The vessel was carrying biodiesel from Saudi Arabia to Réunion. The attack took place at Bab al-Mandeb.
  • January 17, 2024: Houthi UAV hits a U.S. bulk carrier called Genco Picardy, sailing from Egypt to India.

The idea behind these attacks is to impose economic costs on Israel and other nations, thereby pressuring them to call a ceasefire in Gaza. These attacks disrupted global shipping routes and international commerce. The Red Sea and Suez Canal account for 30 per cent of the world’s container ship traffic. According to the UN, Suez Canal traffic has dropped 42% since these attacks. Due to the onset of these attacks, shipping companies have had to divert ships across Africa instead, thereby increasing the cost of shipping.

INDIA’S TWO-PRONGED  STRATEGY

Since its inception, India has maintained its principled stance of non-interference and peaceful resolution of this conflict. However, due to the expansion of this conflict to the extent of international trade routes, India is forced to step in to protect its interests. Furthermore, there have been attacks on ships en route to India or on ships carrying Indian workers. Recently, there was a targeted drone attack on a merchant vessel in the Arabian Sea. Like the ship the Galaxy Leader attacked by the Houthis, this ship too was routed to India. This vessel, named MV Chem Pluto, was attacked about 200 nautical miles (370km) off the coast of Gujarat. This attack, near its coast, finally pushed India to take control of the situation. Immediately after this attack, the Indian Navy dispatched its three warships, INS Mormugao, INS Kochi, and INS Kolkata, to the Arabian Ocean to maintain a deterrent presence.

MV Chem Pluto attack suffers a drone attack in the Arabian Sea.

MV Chem Pluto

India adopted a two-pronged strategy to tackle these attacks and to protect its interests in the region. The strategy involves two domains: diplomatic and kinetic. On the diplomatic front, India directly engaged the fountainhead of these attacks, which happens to be Iran. Since the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, engaging Iran diplomatically makes sense. With this plan of action, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishanker concluded his visit to Iran on January 14–15. During his visit, Dr. Jaishanker held a 1-on-1 meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. Dr Jaishanker firmly expressed grave concerns and made Iranians realise the gravity of the attack in the Indian vicinity. To further its cause, India is also reconsidering the reinstatement of crude oil shipments from Iran as a quid pro quo.

Dr Jaishanker slams attacks on ships near India during a press conference with Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

On the kinetic front, India has deployed a dozen warships in the Arabian Sea and near the Red Sea. This included surveillance aircraft and Marcos’s special commandos. This happens to be India’s largest deployment in the region. The primary objective of this deployment is to ensure the safety and security of cargo ships from any future attack or piracy. Unrest in the Red Sea is exploited by the pirates to hijack ships as the Western powers are focused on Houthis. As a regional security provider, the Indian Navy has averted at least 17 incidents of hijacking and attempted hijacking in the past two months. Instead of joining the US-led task force in countering Houthis in the Red Sea and bombing their ports, India chose its independence strategy. This two-pronged approach is optimal for protecting India’s interests considering its non-align individualistic foreign policy.

Also Read, Deflation In China: A Cause of Concern?

CONCLUSION

With each passing day, the war in Gaza is expanding far beyond its borders. It’s high time for global institutions to call for a ceasefire through constructive negotiations. Until then, it is pertinent for every nation to safeguard its interests in the region. India, located at the heart of the Indian Ocean, has a lot at stake. Being the largest naval power in the Indian Ocean, India also bears the responsibility of fulfilling its duties as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. India’s approach to diplomatic manoeuvring, supplemented by a mighty naval presence, has been rewarding in protecting its interests and maintaining tranquillity in the region. Furthermore, it also gives confidence to regional players that it is willing and able to shoulder regional responsibility. However, it’s just the beginning; this conflict is far from over. Therefore, India must not be complacent and shall adapt its policies accordingly.

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Anmol Kaushik

Hi, I'm Anmol Kaushik, I'm currently pursuing Law (4th year) at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies (GGSIPU). I'm a defence enthusiast and a keen geopolitical observer.

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