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US military operation in the Red Sea sparks tensions between Madrid and Washington

Joe Biden and Pedro Sánchez addressed the issue on Friday after Spain vetoed a plan for the EU to help with the mission via Operation Atalanta

Comercio Mar Rojo
A ship sails with an escort in the Red Sea in late November due to the threat of attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels.HOUTHI MILITARY MEDIA (via REUTERS)

The military operation launched by the United States to protect ships sailing in the Red Sea from attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels has caused unexpected tension between Madrid and Washington. The Spanish government was displeased on Monday when the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin included Spain in the 10 countries that were going to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian, commanded by the United States, without prior notice. The Spanish government’s spokesperson, Pilar Alegría, had to deny Spain’s involvement. She said that the country would not participate “unilaterally” in the coalition, although the Spanish Ministry of Defense made it clear that it could do so “within the framework of NATO or the European Union.”

The issued seemed to have been cleared up the next day when, in an extraordinary meeting of the European Political and Security Committee (CPS), among ambassadors, it was agreed that the EU would take part in monitoring the Red Sea through Operation Atalanta, which has been fighting against piracy in the Indian Ocean since 2008. The EU High Commissioner, Josep Borrell, announced the decision and stated that Europe would step up its exchange of information with the United States and reinforce its naval presence with additional resources. “This demonstrates the EU’s role as a provider of maritime security. We match our words with actions,” he concluded. However, the next day, in a technical meeting, Spain vetoed changing the mandate of Operation Atalanta to include protecting maritime security in the Red Sea, according to the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial.

The decision caused surprise in diplomatic circles, since the Spanish government did not provide any explanation for the veto. According to diplomatic sources, this sudden U-turn was the reason why U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Friday — in what was their first call since Sánchez’s investment. Although La Moncloa, the Spanish seat of government, did not reference the Red Sea issue in its statement, the White House reported that both leaders discussed the importance of ensuring the Gaza war does not spread throughout the region, and condemned the “ongoing Houthi attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea.”

That same Friday, after meeting with Pedro Sánchez in Congress, the leader of the Popular Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, revealed that he had told him that “Spain’s decision for the moment is not to intervene; or, at least, not intervene under the conditions requested by the United States.”

On Thursday, in statements to the Cadena SER radio station, Spanish vice president Yolanda Díaz said it was “enormously hypocritical” that the international community was rushing to protect commercial interests in the Red Sea, but remained passive when it came to defending the civilian population in Gaza. The Houthis militants, who are allies with Iran, claim that they are only attacking ships heading to Israel, but in practice, any ship that has passed through Israeli ports or that is linked to that country, is a target. This is threatening maritime security along a route through which an estimated 10% of the world’s trade passes.

Spain plays a key role in Operation Atalanta, as it is headquartered at the Rota base in the Spanish city of Cádiz, and overseen by the Spanish vice-admiral Ignacio Villanueva Sánchez. What’s more, the Spanish frigate Victoria is currently the only ship that the European operation has, after the withdrawal of the Italian frigate. It does not even have a maritime patrol plane, since its deployment in the area is conditioned by the monsoon season.

Military sources point out that, given Operation Atalanta’s limited means, it is impossible for it to take on new tasks — especially since, there has been a resurgence of attacks by Somali pirates, with two kidnappings (an Iranian fishing vessel and a Bulgarian freighter) in recent weeks. It would be possible, they say, if their resources were significantly strengthened and an operational plan was approved. The narrow width of the Red Sea means that there is only a short time to react to an attack from the Yemeni coast, meaning escorts have to sail very closely to the vessels they are protecting and within range of an attack. The Houthi drones — which are carrying out most of the attacks — are slow, but raise the question of whether it is worth spending on expensive missiles to shoot them down. Moreover, from a political point of view, a conflict with the Houthis is a proxy conflict with Iran.

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