US, allies mull naval task force to protect shipping in Red Sea after Houthi attacks

National security adviser Jake Sullivan says Washington in active talks to set up escorts in vital maritime trade route, holds Iran responsible for recent assaults on ships

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, December 4, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, December 4, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — The White House said Monday that the US may establish a naval task force to escort commercial ships in the Red Sea, a day after three vessels were struck by missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US has been in active conversations with allies about setting up the escorts though nothing is finalized, describing it as a “natural” response to that sort of incident.

On Sunday, ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck three commercial ships, while a US warship shot down three drones in self-defense during an hourlong assault, the US military said. It marked an escalation in a series of maritime attacks in the Middle East linked to the Israel-Hamas war, which broke out after 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists killed 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7, most of them civilians massacred amid brutal atrocities.

“We are in talks with other countries about a maritime task force of sorts involving the ships from partner nations alongside the United States in ensuring safe passage,” Sullivan told reporters. He noted similar task forces are used to protect commercial shipping elsewhere, including off the coast of Somalia.

The Houthi attacks imperil traffic on one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes and with it global trade overall. The US Energy Information Administration says 8.8 million barrels of oil a day are shipped through the Red Sea and the narrow straits of the Bab al-Mandab within range of the Houthis, making it one of world trade’s most crucial chokepoints. The ships carry oil and natural gas from the Gulf to Europe, the United States, and China.

The Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab are also part of a vital route for commercial shipping overall, carrying millions of tons of agricultural products and other goods to markets yearly.

This handout picture courtesy of the US Navy taken on October 19, 2023, shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea. (Aaron Lau / US NAVY / AFP)

Sullivan said that while the Houthis had “their finger on the trigger,” the group’s Iranian sponsors were ultimately responsible.

“The weapons here are being supplied by Iran,” Sullivan said. “Iran, we believe, is the ultimate party responsible for this.”

“While they were launched by the Houthis in Yemen, were fully enabled by Iran,” he added.

Sullivan said the US does not believe that all three of the ships struck by the Houthis had ties to Israel, saying, “It goes to show you the level of recklessness that the Houthis are operating.”

The maritime security firm Ambrey said one of the attacked vessel’s ownership and management was linked to Dan David Ungar, a British citizen listed as an Israeli resident in Britain’s main companies directory.

Israeli media identified Ungar as being the son of Israeli shipping billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar.

Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict. Iran also backs and arms the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war.

In November, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida. Missiles also landed near another US warship last week after it assisted a vessel linked to Israel that had briefly been seized by gunmen.

However, the Houthis had not directly targeted the Americans for some time, further raising the stakes in the growing maritime conflict. In 2016, the US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at US Navy ships at the time.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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