Today's D Brief: 10-nation Red Sea flotilla; Helping Ukraine repair its weapons; More election meddling; And a bit more.
The Pentagon on Monday launched a 10-nation naval coalition to protect civilian cargo transiting the coast of Yemen. The announcement comes after more than 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi militia, which is headquartered in the mountainous, inland capital city of Sana’a, but whose troops control much of Yemen’s coastline.
At least a dozen merchant ships have been targeted by the Houthis while passing through the Red Sea in the 10 weeks since the militant group Hamas launched a brutal surprise attack against Israeli civilians and troops on October 7.
That includes two recent attacks Monday announced after the Pentagon launched the coalition—chemical/oil tanker motor vessel Swan Atlantic, which was hit by a ballistic missile; and bulk cargo ship M/V Clara, which reported an unspecified strike nearby but not to the vessel itself. Both attacks occurred Monday morning, and fortunately no one was injured, according to U.S. defense officials at Central Command.
The Houthis have also launched ballistic missiles at Israel, but U.S., Saudi, and Israeli systems downed them all before they reached their targets. The French navy has also shot down likely Houthi-launched drones above the Red Sea over the past several days. Thirty-five countries had ties to at least 10 of those ships attacked by the Houthis, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Monday.
The new 10-nation coalition effort is called Operation Prosperity Guardian, and it includes the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. Representatives from 43 nations met with Austin on Monday to discuss the initiative, which will fall under an existing U.S.-led naval coalition for the region known as Task Force 153.
An estimated 10 to 15% of global trade passes through the Red Sea. Because of the Houthis’ attacks, “international shipping companies are having to reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of key goods and materials, including oil and gas,” Austin said.
By the way: European gas prices jumped 7% after BP announced Monday it was suspending Red Sea transit due to the threat to shipping. Several major shipping firms (Maersk, e.g.) announced similar moves over the weekend.
Worth noting: The Houthis “were on the receiving end of an intensive Saudi-Emirati air campaign for five years, they can absorb a couple symbolic airstrikes on radar sites or missile hides,” said security analyst Alex Almeida, writing on social media Monday. “The thing they want most is to get bombed by the U.S.”
Rewind: The Houthis stepped up their attacks around the Red Sea after October 17, when an errant Hamas rocket caused a deadly explosion at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City. The group has attacked Israel at least nine different times using a variety of cruise missiles and drones, according to a recent policy analysis by Mike Knights of the Washington Institute. The Houthis also shot down a U.S. Predator drone on November 8 and used a helicopter to hijack the Israeli-owned, Japanese-leased tanker Galaxy Leader on November 19.
Big picture: “The Houthis are an expansionist power, with deep animosity toward Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States,” Knights writes. They “display a level of ideological determination and ambition almost unique among Iran’s partners in the axis of resistance,” he continues. “This is partly because the Houthis “are inured to war after spending almost all of the last twenty years in conflict with domestic enemies and nearly ten fighting Saudi Arabia.” What’s more, “Their leadership is well hidden.”
But perhaps more importantly, “the Israel-Hamas war has caught Israel in a pincer between northern and southern arms of Iran-organized opponents” with the Houthis in the south and Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon, Knights explains. And this virtually guarantees the Houthis’ continued existence, even if Yemeni peace talks with the Saudis collapse, which—given Riyadh’s interest after nearly nine years of a failed war—doesn’t seem likely. But those talks are still ongoing, with no clear end in sight.
The U.S. perhaps ought to aim for “containing” the Houthis as best they can, similar to the North-South divide on the Korean peninsula, Knights advises. But there are more aggressive measures available to the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, he adds. Such sensitive targets include “drone and missile storage sites; irreplaceable helicopters and fixed- wing aircraft; Iranian and Hezbollah specialists and advisors; liquid-fuel systems and storage; and the antishipping capabilities they have built, including ‘mother ships’ and ‘spy dhows’ operating far from Houthi-held areas.” Read the rest, here.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1777, Gen. George Washington settled his troops for the winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Driven from Philadelphia, the force spent the cold months training; they emerged better prepared in the new year.
Ukraine’s friends are working to boost its arms maintenance and production. Various governments and companies have signed relevant deals over the past few months. The latest is BAE Systems, which announced on Monday that it had hired vehicle maintenance company AMS Integrated Solutions Ltd to repair UK-donated artillery systems at AMS’ facilities in Ukraine. “Once operational, the move will make AMS among the first announced Western companies to be involved in maintaining offensive military equipment within Ukraine,” writes D1’s Sam Skove.
It follows similar announcements by French, German, and U.S. officials and companies. For example, a British trade-mission trip to Kyiv on Dec. 13 and 14 produced announcements that Babcock will help maintain two minesweepers with Ukraine-based staff, and a memorandum of understanding between Thales and Ukrainian drone maker Aerodrone. Read on, here.
Russia sought to weaken the Democratic Party before the 2022 midterms, according to the U.S. intelligence community. “The IC assesses that the Russian Government and its proxies sought to denigrate the Democratic Party before the midterm elections and undermine confidence in the election, most likely to undermine US support for Ukraine,” the National Intelligence Council declared in a report dated December 2022 and recently released in redacted form.
China also “tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both US political parties,” the report said. “PRC leaders most likely see their growing efforts to magnify US societal divisions as a response to what they believe is an intensified US effort to promote democracy at China's expense.”
WSJ: “The findings come amid rising concerns from U.S. officials and security experts about foreign adversaries potentially pouring ample resources into interfering in the 2024 presidential election contest eight years after Russia engineered a multipronged interference campaign to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, his Democratic foe in the 2016 election.”
The report also sets forth new definitions of various terms related to foreign election-meddling efforts, including “Election interference,” “election influence,” and “foreign malign influence.” Find those on pp. 3-4 of the report.
And don’t miss: “He’s Wanted for Wirecard’s Missing $2 Billion. He’s Now Suspected of Being a Russian Spy,” via the Wall Street Journal, reporting last week on a case that has been known for a little while, as the Financial Times explained in this recommended 2022 podcast episode.