The Houthis' ability to launch missiles deep within Saudi Arabian territory gives them a tool that does not bring military gains, but does weigh heavy on the Saudi psyche.
When Saudi Arabia and some of its regional allies entered Yemen in March 2015 a major justification for the Riyadh-led coalition was the threat posed by the Houthi rebel movement’s “heavy weapons and missiles” near the kingdom’s border. Two-and-a-half years on, the mission on its own terms has been a failure.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance continues to resist the Saudi military machinery by firing ballistic missiles against targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Threats to attack the United Arab Emirates too, continue to expose the coalition’s ineffectiveness in neutralising the missile threat from Yemen. Although intercepted by Saudi Arabia’s missile defences, the Houthis firing of a Burkan H2 ballistic missile at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh most recently underscored the rebels’ unprecedented capacity to threaten the security of millions of Saudis hundreds of miles north of the Saudi-Yemeni border.
The Houthis’ firing of these missiles has spurred a lot of debate about where these weapons come from and which actors are enabling Ansarullah (the dominant Houthi militia) to launch such missiles. Lacking indigenous missile development capabilities, the Houthis have relied on old stockpiles and foreign actors for their arsenal of ballistic missiles.
On paper, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed Yemen’s arsenal of ballistic missiles—which both the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) purchased from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Yemen’s post-unification regime bought from North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s—over to Hadi’s government during the 2012 transfer of power.
In reality, however, many former Saleh loyalists hid them at the time and it is unclear where all of these missiles went after the war erupted.
After the Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen in 2015, Iran stepped up its military and financial support for the Houthis as part of Tehran’s strategy of weakening the kingdom via its southern border - long understood to be Saudi Arabia’s “soft underbelly”.
Although Ansarullah has assembled their missiles locally, they have been based on Iranian designs. Over the course of the current Yemeni civil war, Houthi militants claim to have manufactured the Qaher-1 and Zelzal-1 and 2 ballistic missiles locally. Reportedly the Houthis did so with assistance from Tehran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. In August 2016, Iranian state-run media acknowledged that Ansarullah fired an Iranian-made Zelzal-3 rocket.
In response to the November 4 missile launch, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, accused Tehran of possibly committing “an act of war”, which Iran’s Foreign Minister condemned as a “dangerous” claim.
In addition to officials from other GCC states, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan have also accused Iran of directly supplying these missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Two days after the missile interception, US officials praised their counterparts in Riyadh for “exposing” Tehran’s hand behind the Yemeni missile threat.
The Conflict Armament Research, which in 2016 documented an Iranian smuggling route via the Horn of Africa, which Tehran used to provide the Houthis with light weapons and anti-tank missiles, suggested in March that the Islamic Republic supplied the rebels with aerial drone technology which the Houthis have used to disable the Arab coalition’s missile defense system prior to launching missiles.
In February, the Riyadh-led coalition killed a high-ranking officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Yemen’s Sa’ada region, situated next to Saudi Arabia, who had been supervising Ansarullah’s missile systems.
As the gruesome Yemeni civil war prolongs, with the country’s humanitarian crisis exacerbating on a daily basis, the conflict has become a quagmire that has also proven immensely costly for Saudi Arabia both in terms of blood and treasure.
The Houthis’ ability to capitalise on mountainous terrain to protect mobile launchers from the Saudi-led coalition’s forces enables the rebel movement to sustain missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the coalition’s targets in Yemen.
Although such missiles have missed targets and frequently been intercepted by Saudi Arabia’s anti-missile systems, their firing alone has highlighted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s inability to decisively defeat the Houthis which now pose a growing threat to GCC security.
The Houthi media outlets have also seemingly never missed an opportunity to promote their launches on social media, projecting an image of strength vis-a-vis the Arab coalition. Officials in Riyadh are engaged in an expensive effort to halt missiles into the Kingdom while each rocket entering Saudi air space only highlights its failure.
The Yemeni conflict has ground to a stalemate as different sides refuse to make the necessary concessions for the opening of peace talks. The Houthis continued accumulation and deployment of its arsenal that threatens Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s security offers the rebels leverage to bring their adversaries to the table on terms advantageous to the Houthis. Although such missile launches have, thus far, failed to strike spectacular targets they serve as crucial psychological and propaganda tools that weigh on the Saudi psyche.
Looking ahead, Yemen is need of a political process that brings all of the country’s factions toward reconciliation with some sense of dignity. Yet Donald Trump’s administration is determined to counter Iran’s expanding clout in the Middle East more aggressively, thus Washington is likely to continue backing the Saudi-led coalition militarily—despite growing calls from US lawmakers and human rights organisations to do the opposite—under the banner of pushing Tehran’s influence back from Arab countries where it has grown in recent years.
Given Washington’s growing support for the Arab coalition in Yemen and Iran’s continued backing of Ansarullah, odds are that the Yemeni civil war will prolong with little hope for a mediated settlement in the near term. Within the context of a bloody stalemate, the Houthis’ possession of long-range missiles that can land deep within Saudi Arabia will remain Ansarullah’s most valuable source of leverage within its arsenal of heavy weapons.
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