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Sri Lanka and the Red Sea Sharks

Sri Lanka and the Red Sea Sharks

14 Jan 2024 | By Kusum Wijetilleke

What is happening in the Red Sea and why did President Ranil Wickremesinghe announce a surprise decision to “deploy a ship from the Sri Lanka Navy to the Red Sea, contributing to the security of the region against Houthi activities” (as stated by the President at the Shilpa Abhimani Awards held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) just last week?

At the time of writing, America and the UK have attacked Yemen positions within the country, an escalation that is likely to further escalate hostilities in the region. 

Many of the headlines suggest that Sri Lanka will join the operation to defend sea lanes against the Houthi ‘rebels’. On the popular political discussion TV programme, Rear Admiral (Retd) Y.N. Jayarathna noted that as per the President’s comments, Sri Lanka seemed to have “committed ourselves to safeguard the sea lane of communication,” noting that the Red Sea area was crucial to the freedom of the sea lane.

President Wickremesinghe noted as justification: “… shipping has been disrupted due to Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea. To counter this, if ships reroute around South Africa instead of navigating the Red Sea, it will lead to increased cargo costs…” 

The AP reported that the “attacks by Houthi rebels have targeted commercial shipping vessels transiting through the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links markets in Asia and Europe following the 7 October attack by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent war against the militant group in Gaza”. 

Sri Lanka’s Navy will send an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) to meet what the President has determined to be a strategic imperative in line with national interests.

From Gaza to the Red Sea

At the time of writing there have been some 15 deaths at sea as part of combat action between Western/North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-allied fleets and Houthi vessels; 9 January saw the largest Houthi drone attack targeting cargo vessels, with as many as 25 drones being detected and destroyed by a UK warship. 

A BBC report suggested that the cost of a drone, the type utilised by the Houthi rebels, was around GBP 17,000, while each missile the warships used to destroy a single drone cost around GBP 1 million. Against such a context, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has already suggested the possibility of direct strikes within Yemen against Houthi positions.

Indeed, much of the modern conflict in Yemen has been more recently shaped by Saudi Arabia’s expanded military operations along its southern border. Defence and policy analyst Nilanthan Niruthan, also on the same political programme, noted that President Donald Trump had pushed for the Houthi rebels to be labelled as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), stating that Trump “even used his special powers to veto attempts by the US Senate to remove support from the Saudi-led coalition”. 

The escalation in combat between late 2015 through the next two years will be devastating for that region, with some 300,000 Yemenis being killed since the civil war erupted around 2011 and more than half dying as a result of starvation and malnourishment caused by a famine. One of President Biden’s first foreign policy decisions was to reverse the Trump-era designation of the Houthis as a terrorist outfit and withdraw US support for the Saudi campaign. 

In the Red Sea, the US has launched Operation Prosperity Guardian; in late December, Reuters quoted the US State Department as confirming a 20-nation coalition to combat threats to commercial shipping in the area, however the US only named 12 of those nations. Crucially, France, Italy, and Spain have all rejected joining the US-led coalition, instead maintaining the current deployment in the area under the command of the EU or NATO. 

America possesses the world’s most powerful naval fleet; however, it would be strategically unwise for it to invest a large number of assets in the Red Sea. Furthermore, it may not be best served to be seen as the only nation attacking the Yemeni Houthis, who themselves are among the very few challenging Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. 

Already, President Biden’s polling has suffered due to American support for the conflict in Gaza; the incumbent now trails former President Trump across key battleground states. 

The hand that feeds

The Sri Lankan cost/benefit analysis of sending an OPV to the region is only really necessary if the Sri Lankan Government was given a choice; that is, whether it was an invitation or a firm request of sorts. 

That the Red Sea arena is critical to commercial operations and the global economy is not in question, but what sort of impact Sri Lanka is able to have in the Red Sea is up for debate. 

Whether that impact will be worth the cost is perhaps the crucial point; the monetary cost will exceed Rs. 250 million every 4-6 weeks. While Rear Admiral Jayarathna indicated that the Sri Lankan vessel was likely to be on the periphery of combat, there is always an outside chance of danger to the lives of Sri Lankan naval officers. 

The situation in the Red Sea is a spillover from the Gaza war and it begs the question: does Sri Lanka risk being perceived as a pro-Western entity in this context? President Wickremesinghe himself has joined calls for a ceasefire by Israel and Hamas; Sri Lanka also voted in favour of a ceasefire at the United Nations General Assembly. Acquiescing to a likely American request to assist Operation Prosperity Guardian without an accompanying rationale makes the whole exercise seem ill-considered. 

If the President’s hand is being forced, then perhaps there might be some recognition of Sri Lanka’s contributions to the project by Western leaders, through the world’s media. This creates some positive media spin related to Sri Lanka’s willingness to cooperate and participate in operations that are crucial to regional trade and stability. 

The Houthis are also backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a friendly nation to Sri Lanka and a major market for Sri Lanka’s tea exports – around 5% of total Sri Lankan ‘packet’ tea shipments. Sri Lanka also has in place a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that essentially agreed a tea-for-oil barter system, whereby the Government of Sri Lanka would settle an outstanding oil bill by providing tea over a multi-year period up to a specific monthly quota. 

The lost Zaydi Kingdom

The Houthi rebels emerged from the mountainous region in the north of Yemen in the early 1990s, established by a former Yemeni Member of Parliament (MP) and Islamic scholar Hussein al-Houthi. Al-Houthi belonged to the ancient Zaydi tribe, a previously powerful Shia community with a dominating presence in that region of the Arab Peninsula since around 875 AD. 

Yemen has traditionally been a Sunni Muslim majority country, but the Shiites or Shia Muslim community makes up around 35% of the total population. They are also concentrated around that region of northern Yemen, close to Saudi Arabia, while across the border, there also exist large Shia Muslim communities. 

Yemen’s modern history includes rule by a military junta led by Nasserists, partners of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. There was also a Marxist-Leninist Socialist Party and as the decades reached the 1990s, Saudi Arabia had developed a keen interest in controlling the situation in Yemen due to its proximity to its border and Islamic holy sites. 

Various forces led to the collapse of the last Zaydi Imam in 1962 and with the history of Egyptian and Saudi involvement and the subjugation of Shia communities, Hussein Al-Houthi and his disciples desired a revival of the Zaydi culture and traditions. In a speech in 2004, before his death during a shoot-out, Al-Houthi stated: “We will not become American puppets; we will not sit back and watch as the Jews mess around in Muslim countries.”

At the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, Yemen had been split in two since the late 1960s, with the Nasserist junta ruling the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, also known as South Yemen, led by the socialists. South Yemen thus criticised military intervention in Kuwait by non-Arab countries, even voting against a United Nations Security Council resolution on Saddam’s invasion. This led to the Saudi Government expelling over 800,000 Yemenis from the country. 

Dominos in the desert

The last few days have seen a major Hezbollah attack on one of the two major air force bases in Israel: Meron air force base, located on top of Mount Jarmaq. Meron has sustained significant damage, compromising Israeli military air traffic control operations in that region. Meron was supposed to be guarded by high-tech defence systems, including the advanced Trophy system. However, Houthi rebels used anti-tank missiles to target the base, something Israeli technology was unable to prevent. 

This represents another major setback for the Israeli military which had clearly underestimated Hezbollah’s capabilities, temporarily losing their aerial domination of the northern theatre deep into Lebanon. Hamas rockets continue to target Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have struck at targets, including Hamas leadership, in Lebanon and Syria. There were bombings attributed to ISIS that claimed 100 lives in Iran at a memorial service for Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the US in 2019. The Fatah military wing, called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, has also assembled in the West Bank. These consistent escalations could lead to more pressure on Iran to retaliate on behalf of Palestine, but also to assert Tehran’s influence in the region. 

This is the wider context that one hopes Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry has provided to the President, prior to making the decision on whether to deploy a Sri Lankan naval asset in the Red Sea. The objectives in that theatre might be specific, restricted to communication sea lanes and global commercial shipping, but this combat zone does not exist in a vacuum. You will notice the aforementioned flashpoints in and around that region with this week’s US-led strikes within Yemeni territory. The importance of the Red Sea perhaps necessitates this broad coalition of nations taking military action to ease financial pressures on the global economy, on Israel, and even Sri Lanka.

It is just a shame that there is no such political will among nations in terms of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. Countries with substantial leverage in that conflict seem unwilling to force a settlement or to at least bring pressure for a permanent ceasefire – a project that would not only slow down or stop the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians, but also come with the added bonus of preventing further naval warfare in the Red Sea and further damage to the global economy. 

As is evident, conflicts are connected; as one escalates so another begins to simmer, as this rises to a boil a fresh wound is reopened, creating a spiral that can only lead to further destruction. On the other hand, a slow and steady withdrawal from one theatre, a concerted effort at diffusing another theatre, has the potential to smother the flames of conflict in the wider region, to at least create space for resolution. 

Sri Lanka has a lot at stake without even being involved in the central action. This is indicative of just how precarious international security is becoming; 2024 is off to a great start. 

(The writer has 15 years of experience in the financial and corporate sectors after completing a Degree in Accounting and Finance at the University of Kent [UK] while also completing a Masters in International Relations from the University of Colombo. He is a media resource-person, presenter, political commentator, and researcher. He also presents an interview show that is available on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, and is a member of the Working Committee of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya [SJB]. He can be contacted via email: and Twitter: @kusumw)

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