Quarterly Concerns

Mar 22, 2024

Europe’s Impossible Middle East Mission

The EU has despatched a maritime mission to the Red Sea, in defense of maritime security and the freedom of navigation. Whether or not the root cause—Israel’s war in Gaza—is brought to an end will determine success or failure.

An illustration of the EU "Aspides" naval mission to the Red Sea.
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As war in the Middle East continues to escalate, with Houthi missiles and drone attacks on vessels in the Red Sea against the backdrop of Israel’s war in Gaza, and with the United States and the United Kingdom striking Houthi bases in Yemen in return, Europe has launched a new maritime operation in the region: Aspides. 

The aim of the operation, headquartered in Greece and with an Italian force command, is that of deterring the Houthis, enhancing maritime security, and protecting the freedom of navigation of the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the region, in line with international law. The operation was agreed in February, and while its mandate has been set in terms of its geographic reach—the Red Sea—and military posture—purely defensive—the situation remains highly fluid. 

Geographically, the operation could stretch into the Gulf of Aden up to the Persian Gulf, thus drawing on the capacities of the existing EU operation in the Strait of Hormuz and eventually cooperating with the ongoing one off the Horn of Africa. Operationally, although Aspides’ contours are defined as defensive, excluding attacks on land, it is not clear whether and how the situation could develop, especially if the Houthis were to successfully attack one of the EU’s four frigates deployed in the Red Sea.

Painful Divides

The wish to do more is welcome. The EU has been painfully divided over the Gaza war so far. This has blunted any meaningful European action in the enduring conflict. And the region has noticed. In policy debates in the Middle East, Europe is hardly mentioned at all. Bearing in mind the effects of this war on Europe, from the surge of antisemitism and Islamophobia and to the renewed threat of terrorism, to the dramatic weakening of the West’s standing on the war in Ukraine in the eyes of the “Global South,” becoming more active, in itself, is certainly a positive move.

A maritime operation in the Red Sea (and beyond) to protect the freedom of navigation serves three political purposes. First, it shows that Europe exists and is actually doing something. Of all things, maritime operations—beginning with Operation Atalanta in 2008 (off the coast of Somalia, to combat piracy), but also Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya up until 2019—is something the EU knows how to do, and protecting freedom of navigation is both a European interest and a normative prerogative enshrined in international law. Second, it shows European unity, which has been appallingly absent when it comes to the Middle East, as repeatedly displayed at the United Nations General Assembly in its two votes on the Gaza war last fall. Third, it demonstrates support for US-led deterrence in the region, at a time in when transatlantic relations, against the backdrop of a fraught US presidential campaign, risk entering choppy waters.

But none of these goals actually have anything to do with the Middle East itself, and what can and should be done to put the region on the path of de-escalation. While maritime security and freedom of navigation are sacrosanct goals, as is the wish to see the Houthis end their attacks on vessels, it is highly unlikely that a European operation will contribute meaningfully to this end. 

US and British attacks on Houthi bases directly on Yemeni soil are already in their third month, yet the Houthi attacks continue and have since sunk ships and caused the death of several sailors on vessels transiting the Strait. In fact, for a whole decade, Saudi Arabia sought to defeat the Houthis in Yemen, only to see them consolidate their grip in the north. It is difficult to imagine that a purely defensive European operation exclusively at sea would fare any better. 

No Neutral Endeavor

On the contrary, Aspides will be seen as complementary to US-led attacks on the Houthis, who justify their actions in light of Israel’s war in Gaza which by now has caused the death more of 30,000 Palestinians. While they have attacked vessels that reportedly have nothing to do with Israel, they still claim to be attacking those in some way connected to it. In other words, an EU operation would not be viewed as a neutral endeavor in the context of an ongoing war, unlike other maritime operations it is, and has been, engaged in. It will be read in the region as part of an escalatory (and not de-escalatory) conflict dynamic.

Moreover, noble as the intent to protect maritime security is, it is extremely difficult to see how the current attacks in Yemen will meaningfully deter rather than exacerbate the Houthis’ determination to press ahead. In fact, this may precisely be what the Houthis and their Iranian backers are after. As the escalation continues, in the eyes of many in the world, Europe and the West in general will be accused again of being part of the problem in the Middle East. Once again, China and Russia will reap the benefits.

One may legitimately ask how to stop the Houthi attacks. The answer is plain and simple. The Houthis will continue their attacks, backed by Iran, at least as long as the war in Gaza continues, let alone if it spills into Lebanon through an Israeli attack on Hezbollah or vice versa. The only way to contribute to an end of the Houthi attacks is by removing their alleged pretext (or excuse): Israel’s war in Gaza. Were the fighting to stop there, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea would probably cease or diminish significantly overnight. And if not, they would rapidly lose their perceived legitimacy in the region, where the Houthis are seen currently as the only actors that have stuck their necks out for the Palestinians (although they and their Iranian backers have clearly done so to capitalize politically on the situation). 

Going the Extra Mile

In such a hypothetical context it would be possible for Europeans to construct a maritime security operation by partnering with other countries, ideally from the Global South, where much of the trade transiting through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait is headed. In fact, given Europe’s drastically diminished standing in the Global South, the EU should go the extra mile to avoid fueling a “West versus the rest” dynamic and narrative, rampant since Hamas’ October 7 atrocities and the Israeli response, given many European countries’ unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza. (Countries such as Ireland and Spain have been critical from the start of the war, however, and the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has become more forthright in his statements, criticizing Israel on March 13 for the starvation in Gaza.)

The operational effectiveness and political legitimacy of a European maritime operation in the Red Sea, in other words, entirely depends on context. One thing is a European operation alongside American-British attacks in Yemen while war and famine rage in Gaza and several Western countries cruelly withhold funds to UNRWA, the only UN agency equipped to operate at scale in the Gaza Strip (as well as for refugees in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria); something totally different would be the same maritime operation after a Gaza ceasefire and in partnership with other non-Western countries. The first, i.e., the one in the world we are in, is highly likely to be an operational and political failure; the second, in a hypothetical future, would probably have the opposite effects.

Europe remains divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and particularly on the war on Gaza. Showing unity over a maritime operation in the Red Sea while an untold humanitarian catastrophe unfolds in Gaza, means focusing on a symptom rather than addressing the cause, and doing so in ways that risk only making matters much worse. 

Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.

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