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by John Helmer, Moscow 

On Monday, General Lloyd Austin (lead image, left), the US Secretary of Defense, announced that the US is assembling a fleet of warships to defend Israel’s port of Eilat, the Gulf of Aqaba, and Israel’s Red Sea shipping route by threatening to attack Yemen if it exercises its Law of the Sea right to regulate military transit through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (lead image, right).

The Austin fleet is to be assembled from the coalition of NATO states at war with Russia in the Ukraine.  Austin’s call, announced by the Pentagon while Austin is in Israel,  follows the failure of the USS Eisenhower and its squadron, with additional French and British warships, to prevent the collapse of commercial container and tanker shipping to and from Israel.  

“The recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen,” Austin announced,  “threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners, and violates international law. The Red Sea is a critical waterway that has been essential to freedom of navigation and a major commercial corridor that facilitates international trade. Countries that seek to uphold the foundational principle of freedom of navigation must come together to tackle the challenge posed by this non-state actor launching ballistic missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) at merchant vessels from many nations lawfully transiting international waters.”

“This is an international challenge that demands collective action. Therefore, today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea. Operation Prosperity Guardian is bringing together multiple countries to include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain, to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity.”  

Bahrain on the Persian Gulf — the only Arab state included on Austin’s list — and the Seychelles, the island state in the Indian Ocean, are included to provide shore base facilities for the proposed Yemen-attack fleet. However, no country with naval bases on the Red Sea shore, territorial waters,  and exclusive economic zones extending into the waterway  — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti  — has publicly agreed to participate or approved this escalation of the Gaza war to benefit Israel.  

The Pentagon has also asked the Australian Navy for a frigate to join the Red Sea fleet, but the Australian government in Canberra is reluctant to agree, and Austin has dropped the country from his list.   

All of the governments on Austin’s list, with the exception of the US, voted last week at the United Nations General Assembly for Israel to halt its operations in the Gaza war.  In this context, none of these states recognizes Israel’s right to impose its blockade of Gaza’s ports extending into Palestine’s territorial waters, the Gaza Maritime Area, and Israel’s de facto military rule of the international waters of the Mediterranean, including the Gaza Marine gas field. 

“Freedom of navigation”, Austin’s version of the legal doctrine of his Operation Prosperity Guardian, does not apply to the Gaza Maritime Area.  

In the Red Sea, maps of the International Institute for the Law of the Sea Studies    show overlapping territorial waters and economic zone claims from the eastern and western shore states, leaving no international waters for the passage of warships, particularly through the southern gateway to the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.   Austin’s operation is not innocent passage, as the international Law of the Sea requires, and it defies Yemen’s right to exercise prior authorization.  

Russia’s response is no response, for the time being.

For a summary up to 2021 of the military record and the international law claims for the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, read this.  

Source: https://upsccolorfullnotes.com/red-sea-countries-map/ 

Source: https://www.marineinsight.com/

In an interview with a Russian-speaking American on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not explicitly address the new US intervention plan in the Middle East.

He did say that “Europe and the United States are now rushing in the Middle East, calling on the Lebanese, Iranians, Iraqis, and Syrians to do everything so that the war in Gaza does not spread to the surrounding territories. Perhaps they need to apply the same fervour to ensure that this does not happen in Ukraine.”  

Also on Monday, in the Moscow newspaper Vedomosti, it was reported that Russian experts expect “most likely, the Americans will launch missile and bomb attacks on command centres and military depots of the Houthis, or targeted strikes by special forces may follow in order to eliminate the commanders of the movement. The operation will be roughly comparable to the actions of Western allies in Syria or Iraq.”  

The newspaper claimed that, according to its source, “the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE may participate in the operation – their armed forces and their proxies have been waging a sluggish war against Iran’s allies in Yemen since 2015. I think the Arab monarchies themselves would like to involve the Americans in the conflict, but it will not come to a full–scale war.”  

The implication is that the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, and Kremlin are reluctant to publicly condemn the Austin fleet operation move so as not to upset current Russian relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

What this means for Russia’s relationship with Iran materialized on Monday afternoon when the Iranian Ambassador to Moscow, Kasem Jilali (right), asked for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry, and met Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. If Yemen and the Red Sea were discussed, the official communiqué is keeping it secret. “During the conversation,” the ministry release says, “the Middle East agenda was discussed in detail, with an emphasis on developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict zone. There was general concern about the ongoing escalation in the Gaza Strip. The importance of intensifying international efforts aimed at an early ceasefire, providing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and turning the situation into a political channel was stressed. The issues of the Syrian settlement were also touched upon, including the continuation of close coordination of efforts between Russia and Iran in the Astana format  in the interests of supporting the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the SA [Syrian Arab Republic]”.  

For analysis of the most recent round of Russian-Iranian negotiations, click to read.  

In the past, Moscow officials have consistently defended the Yemeni state’s sovereignty, including its territorial waters in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Ministry has also defended “dialogue with the Houthis and other Yemeni political associations, as well as with all interested states”.  

Russia has also proposed that the United Nations legalize and regulate all operations impacting Yemen.

But that was long ago. The last but one statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry mentioning the Houthis, the civil war in Yemen, and Saudi military intervention was issued six and a half years ago, on March 17, 2017:  “We reaffirm our fundamental position in favour of an early cessation of hostilities and the resumption of a negotiation process in the Republic of Yemen, taking into account the interests of all leading political forces in the country. We continue to believe that the unilateral steps taken by the parties to the conflict, including the current court ruling, as well as the sea and air blockade of certain regions of Yemen controlled by the Houthis and Saleh supporters, are not conducive to creating a favourable environment for restoring trust and restarting the dialogue, and put off the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, which is so much needed by the long-suffering Yemeni people.”

Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi meets Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, January 22, 2018.

In January 2018, Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi, Foreign Minister of the Aden-based Yemeni government,  met Lavrov in Moscow for talks.  “We believe,” Lavrov said at the press conference following their negotiations, “that the UN should henceforth be able to deliver humanitarian aid to Sanaa without fail. It is important to strive to lift the sea and air blockade, to remove all limitations on the deliveries of food, medicines and other prime necessities to all regions of Yemen with no exceptions…Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi and we have agreed to maintain close contacts both directly and via our embassy in Yemen, which due to security reasons has been recently relocated from Sanaa to Riyadh. At the same time, we will continue our dialogue with the Houthis and other Yemeni political associations, as well as with all interested states, including the Arab coalition, on which the further developments in the country and around it depend. We will urge everyone who can contribute to the settlement and the transition from war to a political dialogue to do so as soon as possible.  

There is no Foreign Ministry record of a meeting with Hisham Sharaf, Foreign Minister since 2016 of the Sanaa-based Yemeni (Houthi) government. The Russian Embassy in Sanaa was evacuated in December 2017.  

In November 2019, Moscow appeared to be saying the only international Red Sea operation it would countenance for Yemen should be led by the United Nations (UN). “We”, declared the Ministry’s press department, “urge the parties to the Yemeni conflict to do everything in their power to keep up this positive change so as to be able to stop the hostilities altogether and to launch a UN-led process of peaceful settlement based on the regard for the interests of all the main political forces as well as religious and regional groups in Yemen. We are still convinced that these developments will not only benefit friendly Yemen but will also help to ensure security of all the neighbouring countries.”  

The Chinese government approach appears to be different.

Source: https://maritime-executive.com/

On Sunday,   Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), the Chinese state-owned fleet company, announced that it is halting all shipments to and from Israeli seaports. However, unlike its European peers, OOCL did not say it will stop sailing through the Red Sea. The implication, a shipping source comments, is that Beijing has declared its support for the Arab-led blockade of Israel, and will negotiate directly with Houthi and Yemeni officials so that OOCL vessels will be able to navigate safely through the Red Sea and into the Suez Canal, and vice versa. The commercial advantage to the Chinese is plain, the source said. Whether the Chinese Navy will send escorts for Chinese-flagged cargo vessels remains to be seen.

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