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Houthi Rebels and Their Role in India’s Red Sea predicament: Understanding the Situation

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In the 2020s, the possibility of maritime blockades and trade disruptions is rising, with Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships in the lower Red Sea, a critical artery for global trade and freight movement. The current impasse in the Red Sea is a knock-on effect of the war in Gaza, and India has faced a direct and significant impact through Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships destined for its ports. The events in the Red Sea underpin the scale and spread of conflicts in a globalised world, as states are no longer isolated from distant geopolitical realities.

Houthi rebels, who control large parts of Yemen, have been targeting commercial ships traversing through the lower Red Sea since mid-November to show solidarity with Gaza and protest against Israel’s force projections in the region. Since mid-November, the rebels have targeted 23 commercial ships passing through the lower Red Sea, targeting ships that have no direct connection to Israel, such as those destined for India. The Red Sea serves as one of the most densely packed shipping channels globally, with almost 12% of global trade and 30% of shipping containers passing through it.

The United States launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to counter Houthi attacks on the Red Sea, involving countries like Italy, France, the UK, Bahrain, and Seychelles. Over 1,200 ships have been able to pass through the Red Sea since the US announced the initiative. The US Navy reported that over 1,200 ships have been protected by the initiative. However, the Houthis continue to attack ships passing through the Red Sea.

The presence of Western destroyers and frigates may stall their efforts, but the absence of Arab states like Saudi Arabia is a major challenge. The politics surrounding the Gaza war, Israel’s unwillingness to mitigate its aggressive campaign, and apprehension towards anti-Houthi stance have prevented Arab powers like Saudi Arabia from joining the initiative. The US and other Western states must continue mitigating Houthi operations while gaining more Arab support to restore normalcy in the Red Sea and protect shipping traffic and global supply chains.

India’s Navy has increased surveillance and presence in the Red Sea to protect its shipping interests and ensure the safety of crew, fleet, and freight. The Navy has deployed four Project 15A and 15B class destroyers and Boeing P8I long-range anti-submarine aircraft, Dorniers, and helicopters for reconnaissance. However, a larger coordination with partner countries is needed for long-term stability.

India must work with the US and other countries to continuously assess the movements of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea region, preempt and mitigate their plans, and ensure a two-way real-time flow of information. This is also necessary while monitoring the situation in Gaza. India must maximize its Navy and diplomatic prowess to ensure the situation remains manageable for both its own interests and those of the world. The events also highlight the potential impact of geopolitical realities unfolding in different theatres on India.

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