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Rishi Sunak Urged To Limit UK Military Action In Red Sea And Not Seek To "Punish" Houthis


6 min read

Chair of the foreign affairs committee and Tory MP Alicia Kearns has said Government should ensure that joint military action with the US against the Houthis in the Red Sea is "limited" and does not seek to "punish" the Iranian-backed rebel group.

In a statement on Friday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Houthis had ignored "repeated warnings from the international community" over their attacks in the Red Sea which "cannot stand" and therefore the UK had undertaken retaliatory strikes against the Iranian-backed rebel group.

"The United Kingdom will always stand up for freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade," Sunak said. 

"We have therefore taken limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence alongside the United States, with non operational support from the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain against targets tied to these attacks."

In the government's summary of its legal position on the strikes against the Houthis, it said the action permitted under "international law to use force in such circumstances where acting in self-defence is the only feasible means to deal with an actual or imminent armed attack and where the force used is necessary and proportionate". 

The Houthis, a militia group whose slogan includes the statement "death to America; death to Israel; curse the Jews", has claimed their attacks on vessels in the Red Sea are in solidarity with Palestinians and a call to end Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza. The attacks, many of which have been on civilian merchant ships, have disrupted global trade through the Red Sea – threatening the interests of countries globally.  

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, told PoliticsHome the UK's retaliatory strikes did "seem to be the only option available" and that Houthis were attacking ships to "cause chaos in their own interests". 

"The situation in the Red Sea wasn't tenable anymore," Kearns said. 

"It's really important that these airstrikes are a coercive effort to terminate the threat to naval and merchant ships – essentially to reestablish deterrents – because that has been lost in the region at the moment. 

"It is important that the airstrikes conducted last night were proportionate and precise, and I think it's really important that the government now clearly communicates that this was limited activity in direct response to the rising threat to freedom of navigation.

"This was not a punitive measure to punish the Houthis, but a preventative measure to protect freedom of the waters." 

Kearns also said it is important "we don't allow ourselves to fall for the Houthi narrative that they are doing this in defence of Gaza", warning that hijacking ships also provided a source of income for the rebel group – with 10 to 15 per cent of all maritime shipping globally going through that route. 

"This has nothing to do with Israel and Gaza, this is about protecting a major waterway," she continued.

"And the Houthis have always been committed to the destruction of Israel and the Jews, as per their wording on their flag. And they were doing this to cause chaos and in their own interests."

Tobias Ellwood, senior Conservative MP and former chair of the defence select committee, told PoliticsHome the government's decision to undertake military action without parliamentary approval was "absolutely the right decision". 

"Governments should always retain the latitude to make time sensitive executive decisions to push back against live threats, and this is one such example," he said. 

"So that it was absolutely the right call and became necessary, indeed inevitable, when it wasn't just international shipping that was being targeted but the very taskforce sent to protect safe passenger vessels was was then was then targeted."

Ellwood also said the strikes demonstrated a need for a different approach to Iran by the West.

"We do need to revisit [our relationship with Iran] because clearly behind Hamas sits Iran, behind the Houthis sits Iran, behind Hezbollah sits Iran – and, indeed, behind Iran sits Russia," he continued.

"Therefore there is a whole geopolitical reassessment that needs to be made in recognising the changing the reshaping of the Middle East in a very challenging direction."

The military intervention by the UK took place following an emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday night. Sunak also briefed Labour leader Keir Starmer and Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle, in lieu of following precedent of putting the decision before parliament and citing the urgency of the situation. But the government has faced criticism for not recalling MPs for an emergency sitting to debate the issue. 

But Tory MP and former defence secretary Liam Fox felt there was "no need for a recall" of parliament in light of the Houthi strikes. 

"Is anyone surprised by today’s events?" Fox told PoliticsHome.  "Iran will do anything to thwart peace moves between the Arab world – especially Saudi [Arabia] – and Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis are all part of the same operation".

Former cabinet minister David Davis told PoliticsHome 

that while "if it's defensive action, it [is] almost certainly is justifiable", he believed there should also be involvement of parliament "before we take aggressive action".  He also said the UK Government should not "remotely" be concerned with a potential confrontation with Iran. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters on Friday morning he supported the "operation against the Houthi rebels". 

"It’s clear that for some time now they’ve been carrying out attacks on shipping, commercial shipping in the Red Sea putting civilian lives at risk as disrupting international trade and traffic and shipping," he said. 

"We support this action, obviously we need the Prime Minister to make a full statement to Parliament but we are fully supportive of the action that's needed to stop these attacks taking place."

The Liberal Democrats in particular have condemned the move for bypassing parliament and failing to allow MPs to have a say whether the UK engages in military action. 

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran MP said: “Parliament should not be bypassed.

"Rishi Sunak must announce a retrospective vote in the House of Commons on these strikes, and recall parliament this weekend. 

“We remain very concerned about the Houthi’s attacks. But that makes it all the more important to ensure that MPs are not silenced on the important issue of military action.”

MPs on the left of the parliamentary Labour party have expressed concern about the military action – with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell condemning the move. 

"If we have learnt anything in recent years it’s that military intervention in the Middle East always has dangerous & often unforeseen consequences," said McDonnell on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"There is a risk of setting the region alight."


Additional reporting by Tom Scotson and Caitlin Doherty.

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