Why the US is treading cautiously amidst Houthi attacks on Red Sea ships

Sushim Mukul
Sushim MukulDec 06, 2023 | 09:00

Why the US is treading cautiously amidst Houthi attacks on Red Sea ships

The Red Sea, an important Sea Lane of Communication that connects Europe and West Asia to South and East Asia. Photo: US Navy/dailyO

Since the Yemen-based Houthi rebels 'officially entered the ongoing Israel-Hamas war' on October 31, there has been an increase in attacks on ships, both military and commercial, navigating the narrow Red Sea in West Asia.

The Red Sea, a vital Sea Lane of Communication(SLOC) connecting Europe and West Asia to South and East Asia, falls under the influence of the Houthis, part of Iran's "Axis of Resistance," who have controlled Southeastern Yemen since 2014. Consequently, the Bab al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden, opening into the Arabian Sea, are consistently under threat.


With their ideological opposition to both Israel and the United States, the Sanaa-based group carried out attacks on Southern Israel in late October and early November.

Intensified attacks on vessels

  • The Houthis claimed responsibility for drone and missile attacks on commercial vessels in the southern Red Sea on Sunday, December 3, targeting ships named Unity Explorer and Number 9.
  • The attacks in international waters triggered distress calls that were answered by the US Navy, specifically the American destroyer Carney roaming in the waters nearby.
  • The USS Carney intercepted three drones while assisting the commercial vessels, as reported by Reuters.
  • The incident follows a series of attacks in West Asian waters since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.
  • The Houthis seized an India-bound Israeli ship in the area on November 19, taking its 25 crew members hostage, as reported by the Associated Press.

US response

  • Following the attacks, to maintain the Freedom of Navigation (FONOP) in the area, the White House announced on Tuesday, November 5, that the US may establish a naval task force to escort commercial ships in the Red Sea, as reported by the Associated Press.
  • The US has adopted a cautious approach in responding to these attacks, relying on defensive measures rather than aggressive retaliation.
  • Despite the successful defence by USS Carney against the Houthi attacks using advanced defence systems, they persist, some targeting Israeli-owned ships.
  • So far, the experts, say the US has exercised restraint in dealing with the situation.


  • The current policy of the Biden administration could be aimed at maintaining the status quo and responding defensively to Houthi attacks. 
  • Another reason for the approach could be the potential threat to commercial ships transiting the Red Sea, given the volume of trade it facilitates.
  • The US, with multiple presence in West Asia, can easily take on a small group like the Houthis.
  • The Americans have military bases in Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
  • US's ally Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are right now enjoying a relative calm since the UN-led peace push in 2022.
  • Houthis had engaged in a long bloody war, backed by Shia Iran against the Sunni powerhouse, Saudi Arabia and its friendly neighbour, the UAE.
  • The closest ally of both of them, the USA, might be keeping in mind the implications of a full-fledged war against the Houthis and Iran subsequently.
Map of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Photo: Google Maps.
  • The delicate balance lies in avoiding unnecessary provocations that could lead to further instability in the region, including the Persian Gulf, or Arabian Gulf, as the Saudis like to call it.
  • The region surrounding the Persian Gulf is another important hotspot that is the world's largest single source of petroleum, related industries dominate the region and their export to Asia Africa and Europe.

Hence, finding the right balance between defending national interests and preventing unnecessary escalation remains a challenging task for the Biden administration.

Last updated: December 06, 2023 | 09:00
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