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27th Feb 2024

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Italian admiral: Red Sea muddle shows Nato 'weakness'

  • Italian frigate Virginio Fasan (second from left) in Mediterranean Sea with US and Greek vessels in 2021 (Photo: navy.mil)
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The US and EU's inability to field a joint naval mission in the Red Sea is a sign of weakness in dangerous times, Italy's ex-armed forces chief has said.

"France and Italy won't join the US-led coalition in the Red Sea. This will have no impact from an operational point of view, since navies are well trained to coordinate their actions even outside a definite chain of command, but politically it's a proof of our weak cohesion as Nato as well as EU partners," said Luigi Binelli-Mantelli.

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  • Admiral Luigi Binelli-Mantelli (l) led Italy's armed forces until 2015 (Photo: nato.int)

"Nato should again revise and widen its role in the world's stability and security and the EU should wake up from its 'ecumenic' dream and think about its own solidity," added the retired admiral, who led Italy's military from 2013 to 2015.

"We must cope with it [the new Red Sea challenge], because this is not simply aimed against Israel, it's a direct challenge to all Western countries, testing our determination and cohesion to protect our economy and our common values and way of life," he said, referring to freedom of navigation on the high seas.

The US unveiled its Operation Prosperity Guardian on 18 December in response to attacks on commercial shipping by the Houthi rebel group, which de-facto rules Yemen.

It was meant to involve 20 nations, including the UK and EU naval powers Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.

The EU foreign service also proposed using Europe's 'Atalanta' anti-piracy mission off Somalia to help fight the Houthis on 21 December.

But two weeks later, France, Italy, and Spain have declined to join the US-led force, even though France and Italy have each sent a frigate to the region under their own command.

Germany has not sent any warships, amid internal debate on which vessels to use.

And Spain rubbished the Atalanta idea on 27 December, with prime minister Pedro Sánchez saying the old EU mission had "neither the characteristics nor the nature required for the Red Sea".

"We don't know the next steps yet [on the Atalanta proposal]", an EU official told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, Houthi drone-attacks have forced several of the world's largest shipping lines to stop using the Suez Canal and divert around the Horn of Africa — causing spiralling costs.

Some major lines, such as Taiwan's Evergreen and Hong Kong's OOCL, have also stopped accepting cargo to and from Israel in a bid to appease the Houthis, who launched their attacks in protest at Israel's massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.

"This challenge is very different from the old Somalia piracy since the Houthis are, in a certain way, considered armed forces of a state entity — they have more sophisticated systems and weaponry and Iranian backing," Binelli-Mantelli said.

Part of the problem is a financial one, because Houthi drones cost a fraction of the surface-to-air (SAM) missiles used by Western navies to shoot them down.

But looking at the Italian frigate, the Virginio Fasan, sent to the area, Binelli-Mantelli said there were cheaper ways to strike back.

"The ship is similar to the French one that splashed Houthi drones with her SAMs, but we are also testing our rapid-fire guns, also with three-inch Davide guided ammunition, to do the same job to make things more cost effective," he said.

Davide is a naval gun system developed by Italian arms maker Finmeccanica, which can track and shoot down drones or even faster-moving anti-ship missiles up to 5km away from the vessel.

"The most effective composition of a coalition naval task force should be agile, multirole frigates to cope with air drones and small crafts threatening commercial shipping," Binelli-Mantelli said.

"In addition, it should include a small carrier/LHA with air, amphibious, and special forces capabilities to strike when and if possible the Houthi bases or to simply exercise deterrence," he added.

LHA stands for landing helicopter assault.

Yemen warning

But the Italian admiral warned against any extensive ground operation against Houthi strongholds.

"A land operation to me is unwise at the moment because boots ashore could widen the crisis for an unpredictable and long lasting time," he said.

"Terrorism and integralism can arise anywhere and it is highly improbable we can ever completely eradicate them. We should learn to live with them as we do with our viruses," he added.

Binelli-Mantelli's warning against ground operations in Yemen came amid US and EU efforts to stop the Gaza war from spilling over into a regional conflict.

"I am here when we are seeing worrying intensification of exchange of fire across the Blue Line at the border between Lebanon and Israel," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in Beirut on Saturday (6 January).

"It is imperative to avoid a regional escalation in the Middle East," he added, amid fears that the Iran-backed Hezbollah paramilitary force in Lebanon might escalate clashes with Israel in solidarity with Gaza.

EU states' reluctance to take part in Operation Prosperity Guardian comes amid concern that joining the US, which is arming and funding Israel's Gaza assault, would be seen as taking sides in the war.

EU divisions

It also comes amid internal EU division on Israel relations, given its killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

"In the United Nations General Assembly, 14 members of the European Union voted in favour of [a] ceasefire, two opposed, the others abstained. It is clear that there are differences," Borrell said, referring to a UN vote in December.

Palestinian group Hamas, which rules Gaza, killed 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped over 200 more in a dawn raid on 7 October.

Israel has killed 22,700 Palestinians in Gaza and destroyed so much civilian infrastructure over the past three months that it is facing mounting charges of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

"I am shocked by the suffering of so many innocent civilians. People are not only being bombed, they are now starving," Borrell said.

"Even war has laws ... One horror does not justify another," he added.

"There must be another way to eradicate Hamas, another way that doesn't create so many innocent people being killed," he said.

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