Why Ankara is quiet about an attack on a Turkish ship off Yemen

An explosion damaged a Turkish cargo ship carrying wheat to Yemen’s Houthi-controlled port of Saleef, the Ince Inebolu, 70 miles off the coast of Yemen on May 10.

The White House, Saudi-led coalition and European Union’s counter piracy mission EU Navfor have claimed that the cause of the explosion was a missile fired by Iran-backed Houthi militants.

Turkey made its first statement regarding the incident on May 25, two weeks later, saying “None of a total of 23 Turkish crew onboard were injured and the ship was hit by a missile.” However, there was no explanation for who perpetrated the incident.

The White House, on Friday, said that “The United States is alarmed by the Houthi missile strike against M/V Ince Inebolu” and added that “missile proliferation in Yemen is a real threat to all countries” in its statement about Ince Inebolu incident.

The U.S. in its statement blamed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for the attack, saying, ''We deplore the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ diversion of the Iranian people’s wealth to exacerbate conflicts in other countries and threaten international commerce.''

Maritime terrorism has intensively occupied the world agenda, especially after the USS Cole attack killing 17 and injuring 38 in Yemeni port of Aden in 2000. However, this term is largely unfamiliar in the volatile eastern Mediterranean.

Maritime terrorism incidents have often been conducted against Israel by Palestinians and Lebanon-based Hezbollah in the Mediterranean since the 1970s. Some maritime terrorism attacks have also taken place in Turkey.

The hijacking of the Avrasya ferry in 1996 and the Kartepe ferry in 2011, an attack attempt on Israeli cruise ships with a bomb-laden boat by Al-Qaeda in Antalya in 2005 and the trapping of Turkish Coast Guard Boat with a booby-trapped life raft off the coast of Samandag in Hatay province in 2016 are examples of maritime terrorism incidents in Turkey in recent years.

The Turkish Navy and Coast Guard have intensively patrolled to discourage possible risks and threats, prevent illegal acts such as maritime terrorism and protect sea lines of communication in surrounding seas and the Turkish Straits.

The Turkish Navy has also participated in not only Operation Mediterranean Shield and Operation Black Sea Harmony initiated by Turkey, but also international operations such as NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, UN’s UNIFIL Task Force off coast of Lebanon and counter piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden to promote global maritime security.

Turkey seems to have substantially provided the maritime security in its own territorial and inland waters. However, prominent waterways, such as the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb and the Suez Canal, where Turkish ships sail regularly, are still under the threat of maritime terrorism.

The Strait of Bab El-Mandeb connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and off coast of Yemen have become the scene of numerous terrorist attacks such as well-known USS Cole Attack in 2000 and Limburg Tanker attack in 2002.

These attacks on warships and civilian merchant vessels have increased with growing instability in the region, especially escalated after the beginning of the Yemen civil war. The Iran-allied Houthis have also started to use sophisticated weapons such as anti-ship guided missiles and unmanned explosive-laden boats.

Before the Ince Inebolu incident, a UAE naval transportation ship was destroyed with a guided missile in 2016, a Saudi frigate was damaged by unmanned bomb-laden boat in 2017 and a Saudi tanker was hit with unidentified weapon in April 2018.

Nearly a week later, in the Emirati transportation ship incident, U.S. task group consisting of 3 warships also targeted by two anti-ship missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory, but neither missile reached its target.

Recently, Saudi-led coalition forces destroyed three of four remote-controlled speedboats rigged with explosives attacking three commercial vessels being escorted by two coalition warships on May 23 in the Red Sea.

Another risky region for Turkish vessels is the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and its adjacent waters.

Sinai-based extremist groups, especially ISIS, targeted merchant ships and Egyptian naval units in the region. They fired rocket propelled grenades at merchant ships transiting Suez Canal in 2013.

The groups has also attacked Egyptian naval units in the Mediterranean, most notably killing eight servicemen in an attack 70 km from Egypt’s coast in 2014. They also struck an Egyptian patrol boat in 2015 with possible anti-tank guided missile, and damaged her.

Moreover, Israel-Hezbollah conflicts threaten impartial ships too. Iran-backed Hezbollah has sophisticated arms in its arsenal such as unmanned aerial vehicles , anti-ship missiles, guided missiles and rockets. 

So far, Hezbollah has not directly targeted civilian merchant vessels. However, they mistakenly sank an Egyptian cargo ship when they tried to hit a Israeli warship with an anti-ship guided missile in 2006.

The probability of a new Israel-Hezbollah conflict in foreseeable future is becoming increasingly likely. For this reason, we may experience incidents such as Ince Inebolu not only off the coast of Yemen but also in the Mediterranean.