A week after the launch by the US of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) a number of key potential allies appeared to be distancing themselves from the plan. President Joe Biden had hoped to present a firm and unanimous international response to the Iran-aligned Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. But two European allies who were listed as contributors to OPG – Italy and Spain – issued statements last week that appearing to distance themselves from the maritime force.
The Pentagon had announced that OPG was a defensive coalition of more than 20 nations. But it has announced the names of only 12.
Those contributions vary according to the size of the participating country. For some it would have consisted of no more than sending a single staff officer.
“We’ve had over 20 nations now sign on to participate,” Major General Patrick Ryder said, noting declarations by Greece and Australia. He added that “we’ll allow other countries, defer to them to talk about their participation.” Each country will contribute what they can, Ryder said. He called OPG a “coalition of the willing. In some cases that will include vessels. In other cases, it could include staff or other types of support”.
The problem for OPG is that it has become inexorably linked with the US line on Gaza – a line with which many countries do not want to be too closely associated. David Hernandez, a professor of international relations at the Complutense University of Madrid , told Reuters that “European governments are very worried that part of their potential electorate will turn against them”.
The navies of the US, UK and France have already shot down Houthi-launched drones or missiles in the Red Sea, protecting commercial shipping. Nevertheless, some merchant vessels have been hit, with varying degrees of severity.
The US hoped that the response to the Houthi attacks could be seen as separate from the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and that its allies would take the same stance. However, several countries appear worried that their electorates might not perceive the geopolitical subtleties of the situation, concluding instead that OPG was part of a grand US-led alliance in the entire Middle East conflict.
The EU has signalled its support for the new maritime task force with a joint statement condemning the Houthi attacks. Also the UK and Greece have backed the US operation. However, Italy’s defence ministry said that, while it would be sending a ship to the Red Sea, it was doing so following requests from Italian ship owners, not as part of the US operation. France said it supported efforts to secure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, but that its ships would remain under French command rather than under the command of OPG.
Spain looks to be the Western European country least keen on the new grouping. It said that it would not join OPG at all. It also said that it opposed using the existing EU anti-piracy mission off Somalia, EUNAVFOR’s Atalanta, to protect Red Sea shipping. Later the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has political problems at home and is trying to balance forces pulling him in several different directions, said that he would be willing to consider the creation of a different mission to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had already stated that they had no interest in the venture.
The US administration is using off-the-record briefings to explain away the less-than-enthusiastic response to OPG. It said that countries were frightened that joining OPG should put its ships at risk of attack – rather than disagreements over Gaza. However, Greece, the country that would have every right to be most worried about Houthi reaction, has been one of the keenest in supporting the initiative.
One country, India, which is unlikely to join OPG, has used this as its main reason for being reluctant to join. An Indian government official told Reuters said the government worries that aligning itself with the US could make it more of a target. Whether this was India’s sole reason is less sure. Following the US “line” would be the easiest way for it to decline to join while maintaining good relations with the US.
Many European and Gulf countries already participate the 39-nation Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), and the EU’s Atalanta operation already cooperates in a “reciprocal relationship” with CMF. Thus some countries that are not part of OPG could still coordinate patrols with the US Navy – a convenient “get-out” for nations such as Italy, whose populations have been most vociferous in their opposition to current events in Gaza. An Italian government source told Reuters thatthe US-led coalition was satisfied with Italy’s contribution.
Italy is a member of Atalanta. The source also noted that the decision to send a naval frigate as part of existing operations would not require a new parliamentary authorization, which being a part of OPG would.