Pentagon asserts Red Sea safety, but ship owners remain sceptical

At the end of 2023 the US military was trying to reassure shipping companies that Operation prosperity Guardian was a multinational force that was making it safe to sail through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, even though attacks from Yemen-based Houthi rebels have shown no sign of stopping.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bryon McGarry, a Defence Department spokesperson for the Middle East and Africa, said on December 28th that the Pentagon was “engaged with industry on a near-daily basis to gauge needs and provide reassurance that the international community is there to help with safe passage”.

Even before the events of the weekend and this, in which US ships defended commercial ships against missile and drone attacks, and then an attempted hijack, most shipping lines remained at least temporarily sceptical about how much OPG could do to safeguard transits to Suez via the Red sea and the Bab Al-Mandab Strait.

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine officer and senior adviser with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said late last week that “it will take a little while for shippers to get a sense about the security situation. If it turns out that the US and the coalition can maintain safe passage, then I think they’ll come back. But right now they really can’t be sure.”

The feeling amongst shipping companies varies in terms of risk perception and risk tolerance. Those with any connection to Israel, no matter how tenuous, were thought likely to take the “long way round” via South Africa rather than risk a Houthi or even Iranian attack.

The Iran-aligned Houthis have said that they are targeting ships linked to Israel. However, if they can’t find any ships with even a marginal connection, it appears that any western-linked ship will do. Container ships seem particularly to be favoured, as the feeling is that these will impact western consumers.

Half of the container-ship fleet that regularly transits the Red Sea and Suez Canal had by the end of last week taken the decision to divert via the Cape of Good Hope.

Gene Moran, a defence analyst and retired Navy captain, who once commanded destroyer USS Laboon, which has shot down a number of drones in the Red Sea, said that, from his perspective, the shipping companies were still looking for the American-led coalition to do more. “This method doesn’t appear to address the cause of the threat,” Moran said in an interview. “The Houthis are able to operate from the uncontrolled portions of Yemen. Something will need to be done about that. We seem to be moving very gingerly when the conditions seem to call for a more forceful response.”

Therein lies the problem for the US. It is keen to try to keep the response to the attacks on commercial shipping as separate as it can from the overall US military strategy in the Middle East, as it knows that its strong support of Israel is at odds with the feelings of many of its military allies in the region. However, any direct action against, for example, the Houthis on land would be seen as part of the overall US strategy, rather than supporting the defence of merchant shipping in the sector. Shipping companies, despite wanting to be able to travel peacefully through the Suez Canal, are thought to share concern at the implications of a “forceful” US response in the Red Sea. Negotiating Houthi attacks would be one thing. Facing hostility from Iran and other anti-Israel countries in the region would be something else entirely. Cancian said that “if the US were to start shooting at Houthi camps, that would arguably increase the risk, not decrease it. So I don’t think the shippers are particularly anxious to start that.”

While the US has said that OPG consists of more than 20 countries, it has only named the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles, Spain, Australia and Greece – and of these both Italy and France have been lukewarm in their expressions of support. And the Pentagon has not been able to state exactly how OPG will operate.

Major General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in December that OPG would function as a “highway patrol” in the sea.

“We are not putting a timeline on this operation,” said McGarry, the Pentagon spokesperson. “We’ll stand firm with our partners in the region for as long as it takes until the threat to international shipping in these waterways has ceased.”