On Sunday, Houthi fighters hijacked a cargo ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
The 189 meter long Galaxy Leader car transporter, traveling from Turkey to India, was intercepted by small speed boats and boarded by armed and uniformed personnel.
Others rappelled from a helicopter to the deck, ordering the crew to change course toward the Yemeni port of Hodeida.
No shots were fired and the seized ship is a civilian vessel sailing between neutral countries, but the incident still has the potential to trigger a serious escalation in the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine.
At worst, it could be the first step in directly involving the United States and Iran in the war.
Houthi spokesman Yahya Sare’e confirmed that the ship was seized for “being Israeli property” in line with his previous announcement that the group “would not hesitate to attack any Israeli ship in the Red Sea or any place we can reach.” ”. Israel has denied any link to the ship, although ownership details in public shipping databases suggest it is owned by one of Israel’s richest men.
Most of the Red Sea is more than 200 kilometers (124 mi), but its southern end, the Bab al-Mandeb Pass, is a chokepoint less than 20 kilometers (12 mi) wide from the Yemeni island of Mayyun to the coast of Djibouti and Eritrea. Every year more than 17,000 ships pass through it. That’s almost 50 per day.
Many of them have legal status like the Galaxy Leader, which flies the Bahamian flag, is operated by a Japanese company and had a Bulgarian captain and a crew from at least five other countries, none of them Israel. In the complex world of shipping, ownership of a ship is less important than its flag, which indicates its country of registration, and its operating company.
The Bahamas offers what is known as a “flag of convenience.” It is a country with low taxes and less strict labor policies, which attracts operators to register their boats there. The operating company is the Japanese Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, known as NYK Line, which operates 818 ships.
Among the nearly 1,500 ships that transit the strait each month, there may be dozens that could be linked to Israel and are therefore vulnerable to new Houthi hijackings.
Maritime transport must continue no matter what, so will all ships “linked to Israel” be at the mercy of the Houthis?
Probably not, but the options to prevent further hijackings are limited to three: sending armed ships to accompany commercial traffic, destroying or severely limiting the Houthis’ offensive capacity at sea, and persuading them to refrain from attacking.
For the first option, the question is who could provide armed naval patrols in the Red Sea?
Saudi Arabia and Egypt, countries bordering the Red Sea, have strong and sophisticated navies. But Saudi Arabia is in an uneasy truce with the Houthis, whom they are loathe to disturb. Egypt is trying to remain neutral and would also not want to be drawn into tensions with the Houthis. Israel cannot spare any ship for the task.
The only force left to confront the Houthi threat would be the United States Navy.
Since October 7, the United States has deployed many assets to the Middle East, focused on two carrier strike groups (CSG). The one in the Mediterranean, CSG 12, is led by the newest and most modern nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. CSG 2, currently in the Gulf of Oman, is led by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. Each carrier is accompanied by a guided missile cruiser, two or three destroyers, and a flotilla of auxiliaries such as tankers, storage ships, and mobile repair bases.
Each of the two CSGs has a clearly defined task: CSG 12 is to monitor the wider area of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and act against any threats that could escalate the conflict. CSG 2 is there to monitor Iran and act against it if the situation worsens.
Eisenhower’s CSG stays out of the Strait of Hormuz as a direct message to Iran that the United States has no hostile intentions yet. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made it clear that his country will continue to support Hamas and the Palestinian people, but does not want to go to war.
CSG 2 is therefore demonstrating a non-warlike intent by remaining in the Gulf of Oman, from where its aircraft could still hit targets inside Iran if the need arises or could advance into the Gulf in the unlikely event that the U.S. The US should want to escalate its threat.
Outside of the CSG, the US Navy also has individual ships monitoring Houthi missile launches. On October 19, the USS Carney shot down several Houthi missiles and drones targeting Israel.
Since all of these assets have specific tasks, American options are limited. The only ships that can be used to escort commercial shipping are those grouped around the amphibious aircraft carrier USS Bataan, currently just south of Suez. Moving it south would weaken the United States’ potential to respond to any escalation around Gaza.
Which brings us to the second option. The Houthis are known for their willingness to take on even stronger enemies. If the United States attacks them directly, it could risk a major escalation. Washington could ask Israel to target Houthi ports with long-range missiles, but even that is risky.
We thus arrive at the third option, de-escalation.
It seems that Iran is the key again. If the seizure of the Galaxy Leader was an independent Houthi action not instigated by Tehran, the United States could engage in quiet diplomacy to push Iran to rein in its proxy and prevent further abductions at sea.
This might be the most realistic way out, but only if all parties involved show restraint.
The stakes are high. Another kidnapping could have a snowball effect, drawing other countries more actively into an already devastating conflict and bringing it to the point of no return.