ABU DHABI // As the war in Yemen enters its third year and fighting intensifies along its western coastline, the conflict is increasingly spilling over into both sides of the Bab Al Mandeb strait, threatening traffic through one of the world’s most strategic maritime choke points and impeding delivery of desperately needed aid.
The Saudi-led coalition and local forces are fighting to take key ports along the Red Sea coast, but since the end of last year, the rebels have been using increasingly sophisticated weapons and tactics that analysts say are partly the result of Iranian training and equipment specifically for use against naval and maritime targets, including anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, speedboat attacks and even a drone boat loaded with explosives.
"There hasn’t been those kind of attacks, at these levels, anywhere in the world in years," said Commander Jeremy Vaughan, a US naval officer who is currently a fellow at the Washington Institute and whose views do not reflect the official policy or position of the US military or government.
The new maritime dimension to the war has threatened to internationalise the conflict to an even greater degree, and the US administration is currently reviewing its support to the coalition, possibly with increased assistance or even direct military action against the Iran-backed Houthis and their allies.
After a cruise missile hit a UAE vessel last October, followed by US air strikes in retaliation for the targeting of two US warships, a Saudi frigate was hit by an unmanned speed boat, killing two sailors. Two more drone boats were reportedly disabled or turned back by gunfire from the ship.
The US dispatched a destroyer to the strait in February, and reportedly may send at least two more warships to patrol the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
"We’re certainly concerned about it and we’re doing prudent planning, not just ourselves but with our allies and partners in the region," Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, the commander of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet, which also provides security in the Bab Al Mandeb, told Defense News last month. "We’re really concerned now more than before because of this spillage into the maritime," he said, regarding the Houthi threat.
Earlier this month, the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) warned commercial shipping companies that it believes Houthi forces have also laid floating mines around the port of Mokha, which Yemeni forces backed by the coalition captured in January but where intense fighting has since restarted. Two Yemeni coastguard members were recently killed when their patrol boat hit one of the mines near the strait. Hundreds of thousands of vessels pass through the Bab Al Mandeb strait each year – more than over 80,000 in one month alone last year. The US Energy Information Administration estimated that 4.7 million barrels of oil were transported through the strait daily in 2014, mostly headed to markets in Europe.
The new threats emanating from the conflict in Yemen are already driving up security and insurance costs for shipping companies. Lawlessness on the coast means greater risk not only from mines and missiles, but also from militants, criminal gangs and pirates taking advantage of the chaos.
In its latest weekly incident report, the ONI said armed men in skiffs approached commercial ships on March 7 and March 9, but were scared off by on-board security.
But on March 13, Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden captured a UAE-managed oil tanker in the first successful pirate attack since 2012. After a four-day ordeal, the crewmen were rescued by the Puntland Maritime Police Force.
An attack last October on a gas tanker in the strait was probably the work of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), security specialists told Reuters, though no group has claimed responsibility and Aqap is not known to have a presence there.
Managing two usually orderly lanes of shipping passing each way through the 25km-wide choke point is one thing; keeping track of large numbers of small boats carrying contraband and other goods between the Horn of Africa and Yemen is quite another, even without the security vacuum in the coastal regions.
"The use of speedboats, which are quick, difficult to detect and hard to interdict, presents challenges to even major naval powers operating in the region," Mr Pothecary wrote last November.
Cmdr Vaughan said the "significant" maritime traffic passing through the Red Sea and Bab Al Mandeb "complicates efforts to find bad actors".
"It is possible for ships to withhold their position and smaller vessels – the ones that could pose a problem – often do not have the necessary equipment installed or operating," he said. "Small boat traffic is significant, fishing is important throughout the region, as is legal coastal shipping and illegal smuggling."
Rebels in coastal areas are also highly mobile and can fire rockets and missiles, or launch drone boats, and retreat into ungoverned territory before naval or other military forces are able to organise a response.
"It is unlikely a military solution will be sufficient in itself to quickly neutralise the attackers and restore security," Mr Pothecary said.
Coalition forces continue to press on toward the ultimate goal of capturing Hodeidah port, the major port for food and fuel coming into rebel-held Yemen, where most Yemenis live. The coalition is also convinced the rebels get their weapons shipments from Iran through Hodeidah.
The maritime spillover has forced aid organisations away from Hodeidah. With 60 per cent of Yemenis – or 17 million people in the country – on the brink of starvation, this could prove the tipping point in the humanitarian crisis. The International Red Cross is among the aid agencies no longer using the port.
"Nobody from our list of suppliers wants to go to Hodeidah," said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s regional director for the Near and Middle East. "This is problematic."