Yemen’s Houthis lay bare role in confrontation with Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is not the only country the Houthis have placed in the crosshairs.
Sunday 16/06/2019
A Saudi security officer walks in front of the building of the Abha International Airport, June 13. (Reuters)
New provocation. A Saudi security officer walks in front of the building of the Abha International Airport, June 13. (Reuters)

DUBAI - Attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels on a southern Saudi airport marked a new phase in the devastating war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting in support of the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The attack June 12 on the Abha International Airport injured 26 people, said Saudi spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki in a statement. Two days later, an attack was foiled when Saudi air defence forces downed five drones fired from Yemen at Abha airport.

Claiming responsibility for the June 12 attack, the Houthis said they fired a cruise missile at the airport’s control tower and put it out of service. Mohamed Abdul Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, said the strike was a response to Saudi “aggression” in Yemen.

“It is imperative for our people to defend ourselves,” he posted on Twitter.

The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation confirmed the airport’s arrival hall had been damaged but said traffic was operating as normal.

Riyadh said the attack constituted “a clear and full recognition of (the Houthis’) responsibility for targeting civilians and civilian installations that are subject to special protection under international humanitarian law.”

Since the war with the Houthis began, Saudi Arabia has intercepted many ballistic missiles fired by rebels from Yemen. However, the cruise missile attack appeared to be more sophisticated.

“The cruise missile threat has always been a complex one to counter. No system anywhere can provide ‘foolproof’ defence but the Patriot is the best-in-class defence system available,” said Sabahat Khan, a Dubai-based expert in security, defence policy and strategic issues.

“This attack may demonstrate that the Houthi rebels are employing more sophisticated missiles and tactics than before but, more importantly, is also a signal of growing desperation,” he added.

The missile attack on Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, came as tensions are rising between Tehran and Washington. Two days earlier, during a visit by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the United States “cannot expect to stay safe.”

Zarif warned: “Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it.”

Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies say Iran is using the Houthis and other proxy groups to target US allies and strategic interests.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, in May, said the Houthis were an “indivisible part” of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and “subject to the IRGC’s orders.”

“The Houthis confirm day after day that they implement Iran’s agenda by sacrificing the need of the Yemeni people for the benefit of Iran,” Jubeir said on Twitter.

An investigation by the Arab coalition said the IRGC supplied the cruise missile used in the attack.

“This attack… proves this terrorist militia’s acquisition of new special weapons,” said a statement by the Arab coalition, and “the continuation of the Iranian regime’s support and practice of cross-border terrorism.”

Malki said the attack amounted to “a war crime” and proved that the “Houthis have obtained advanced weapons from Iran.”

Analysts said attacks by Iran-backed militias show that tensions are escalating and could spell danger for the region.

“It’s important to consider the geopolitical backdrop with the growing US-Iran tensions and how these events relate to the crisis over Iran’s regional influence and activities over the years,” Khan said.

“For the Saudi-led coalition and the wider international community, these attacks are a stark reminder about why dangerous threats like these, left alone to grow and advance, could be disastrous. Collective resolve towards regional security goals will be strengthened by these threats.”

This is a “new message the Iranians are sending,” Nizar Abdel Kader, a Lebanese military analyst, told the National. “Tehran is saying: ‘We are capable of wreaking havoc with the security and stability of the whole region.’”

He said that, by using proxies, Iran can divert blame for the attacks. “Nobody can prove that the official regime of the Islamic Republic is behind these attacks,” said Abdel Kader.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country the Houthis have placed in the crosshairs, with threats being levelled at the United Arab Emirates, which is a key member of the Arab coalition and a Washington ally.

“Our missiles are capable of reaching Riyadh and beyond Riyadh, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi said on the militia-run Al Masirah TV channel. “It is possible to target strategic, vital, sensitive and influential targets. We are able to strongly shake the Emirati economy.”

Houthi attacks increased after the United States removed sanctions waivers on Iranian oil exports — a devastating blow to Tehran’s economy — and are believed to be part of a regional strategy to gain geopolitical leverage.

The Houthis reportedly ramped up nonconventional war methods in Yemen, including recruiting child fighters, using human shields, diverting humanitarian aid and planting landmines.

The US Embassy in Saudi Arabia condemned the attack, which “targeted innocent civilians,” and issued a security alert. In another statement, the Pentagon said the attack showed “new evidence” of Iran’s malicious role in the region.

The European Union said “such provocative attacks pose a threat to regional security and undermine the UN-led political process in Yemen.”

Bahrain called for a clear international stance on “Houthi terrorism and Iranian support for it.” Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa called the attack “a serious escalation using Iranian weapons.”

Egypt’s foreign minister reiterated that Cairo “stands with Saudi Arabia against any targeting of its security and stability.”

The United Arab Emirates strongly denounced the “terrorist act, which is new proof of the Houthis’ hostile and terrorist approaches that seek to undermine the regional security and stability.”

While the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed solidarity with the kingdom and extended support to “all measures taken to thwart any threat to (its) security and stability.”

“The security of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia is indivisible and any threat or danger facing the kingdom is considered to be a threat to security and stability in the UAE,” it added in a statement.

There was no immediate response from Iran, which has denied arming the Houthis.

The Houthis previously used ballistic missiles to target Riyadh and its airport. They launched bomb-laded drones targeting a key oil pipeline and the south-western Saudi city of Khamis Mushait.

On June 11, the Houthis launched at least two Qasef-2K drones at Khamis Mushait, which is home to an air base. The state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that the Saudi military “intercepted” two drones.