Guardians of prosperity

German government backs ultimatum on Houthi militias attacking merchant ships but seeks means to initiate Red Sea warship deployment.

BERLIN/SANAA (own report) - The German government is backing an ultimatum that threatens military action against Houthi militias in Yemen. This comes in response to attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea. Led by the US, twelve countries, including Germany, announced on Wednesday that they would hold “malign actors accountable” for attacks on “the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways” if they did not cease their activities “immediately”. The UK, which also supports the threat, is already preparing air strikes on positions of Ansar Allah, as the Houthi militias are officially known. London is also considering attacks on Houthi boats. Berlin wants to dispatch ships to the Red Sea as part of the US-led naval coalition, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, but has not yet clarified either the formal framework in which this may take place or the choice of warship available for the purpose. The earlier plan to extend the mandate of the EU’s Atalanta operation at the Horn of Africa to the Red Sea has recently fallen through. Meanwhile, Ansar Allah has committed to continuing attacks on merchant shipping until Israel stops its brutal war on Gaza.

Economic damage in the billions

The attacks by the Houthi militias, or Ansar Allah as they are officially known, are putting Western countries, and the USA in particular, in an increasingly difficult position. Although only a relatively few merchant ships travelling through the Red Sea have actually been hit by Houthi missiles or boarded by Houthi forces, their actions threaten major economic damage over the medium to long term. Eighteen shipping companies have so far announced that they will avoid the Red Sea for the foreseeable future and take the very long alternative route around the African continent when sailing between Europe and Asia: a good 3,500 nautical miles or almost 6,500 kilometres. The additional costs are estimated at more than 1.8 million euros per voyage.[1] According to experts, more than 300 ships had travelled the longer route by the end of 2023, meaning that the damage caused in this period alone will have amounted to more than half a billion euros. On top of this, there are further costs due to rapidly rising insurance premiums for those ships still taking the passage through the Red Sea despite all the risks. And, incidentally, according to Indian media Russian merchant ships are not being targeted by Ansar Allah – at least they haven’t been so far – so the economic fallout is mainly affecting the West.[2]

Loss of authority

An addition aspect is the significant loss of authority suffered by the United States in particular. Washington has been endeavouring for years to scale down its military activities in the Middle East in order to focus fully on its power struggle with China. Washington therefore has no interest in a widening of the current Middle East war, which could, as things stand, once again tie down US troops on a large scale across the region. But the US has, for decades, presented itself as the guarantor of “freedom of navigation”. So if it wants to maintain this claim, it must be able to enforce the unimpeded passage of merchant shipping through the Red Sea. So far, all attempts to achieve this, for example through political pressure on the Iranians, with whom Ansar Allah is allied, have completely failed. True, the US and British armed forces have claimed repeated successes in intercepting Houthi drones and missiles and, on Sunday, American helicopters sank three Houthi boats and their crews before they could attack a cargo ship.[3] Yet Ansar Allah is continuing its attacks, openly challenging the ability of the US to act as the guarantor of open sea lanes. Washington is left facing the choice between a painful loss of power and resorting to military force.

Naval coalition

In an effort to expand its military operations in the Red Sea, moving from purely defensive measures that protect merchant ships to offensive direct strikes on Ansar Allah positions, Washington began in December to build a multinational naval coalition (as reported [4]). It has so far gained active support from the UK in particular. Seeking to increase the pressure on Houthi militias, government circles in London leaked information on Monday concerning preparations by British armed forces for concrete airstrikes targeting Ansar Allah.[5] On Tuesday, there were also reports that British special forces could, alternatively or additionally, disable or sink Houthi boats in Yemeni harbours.[6]

Back on 18 December, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that Washington had just established Prosperity Guardian, a naval operation designed to ensure the protection of merchant shipping in the Red Sea. Initially, he said, ten countries were part of the coalition.[7] Shortly afterwards, there was talk of nineteen states joining, although not all of them wanted to be explicitly named. This opacity would be sought above all by Arab state participants who would not want to position themselves publically against Ansar Allah as long as the militia affirm that they are fighting on behalf of the Palestinians.[8]


As for the German government, Berlin has in principle been holding out the prospect of German participation in the US-led naval coalition against Ansar Allah. But the government has so far been stuck in two respects. Firstly, there is a constitutional problem. According to the Federal Constitutional Court, Bundeswehr missions must take place within the framework of a so-called system of collective security, essentially meaning within a UN, NATO or EU framework. As things stand, the first two arrangements are not in sight, while the third is being blocked. The plan to expand the existing EU mission off the Horn of Africa (Operation Atalanta), in which the German navy was strongly engaged until 2022, to the Red Sea has so far failed because of Spain’s reluctance. All attempts by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Defence Minister Boris Pistorius to get Madrid to change its mind have failed to date.[9] A separate EU mission in the Red Sea is now considered feasible, but the details have yet to be presented.

A second obstacle is that two of the three F124 frigates (Sachsen class), which are equipped with the necessary air defence capabilities, are currently undergoing repairs. And the third frigate is still deployed in the naval component of NATO’s “spearhead force” (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force M) in the Baltic Sea. However, that mission ends on Friday of next week, after which the frigate Hessen would in principle be available for a possible redeployment to the Red Sea.

Last warning

Initiated by the US and with German participation, twelve states issued an ultimatum to the Houthi militias on Wednesday. They demand “an immediate end” to the attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea and “the immediate release of the unlawfully detained vessels and crews”. The joint statement concludes: “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”[10] The signatories are “determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.” A US government official is quoted as saying that they cannot expect another warning.[11] If the Houthi militias do not back down, then attacks on Ansar Allah positions are imminent – at least by the US, probably also by the UK, and possibly by other countries. Strikes will be supported politically and soon possibly militarily by Germany. Fighting would then escalate in another war zone as part of the latest Middle East conflict. This has the potential to ignite a wide-ranging conflagration across the entire Middle East.


[1] Larisa Brown, Andrew Ellson: UK special forces could destroy Houthi boats in Red Sea. 02.01.2024.

[2] M. G. Arun: Why sustained tensions in Red Sea can harm India’s crude oil imports. 04.01.2024.

[3] David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Vivek Shankar: U.S. Helicopters Sink 3 Houthi Boats in Red Sea, Pentagon Says. 31.12.2023.

[4] See also: Warships in the Red Sea.

[5] Laris Brown, Melanie Swan: UK preparing for attacks on Houthi rebels with US. 01.01.2024.

[6] Larisa Brown, Andrew Ellson: UK special forces could destroy Houthi boats in Red Sea. 02.01.2024.

[7] Statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Ensuring Freedom of Navigation in the Red Sea. 18.12.2023. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin names, alongside the United States, Bahrain, France, Great Britain, Italy, Canada, The Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. Spain gave notice shortly afterwards that it would not be taking part in Operation Prosperity Guardian.

[8] How Houthi rebels are threatening global trade nexus on Red Sea. 19.12.2023.

[9] Marina Kormbaki: Kollision in Brüssel. 29.12.2023.

[10] Joint Statement from the Governments of the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore and the United Kingdom. 03.01.2024.

[11] Michael R. Gordon, Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef: U.S., Allies Give Houthis Ultimatum: Stop Ship Attacks or Face Consequences. 03.01.2024.