The recent Houthi drone attacks demonstrate the potential of regional conflict escalation.

Yemen’s Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline west of Riyadh on 14 May, demonstrating a significant development in the military capabilities of the fighting group that have since gone on to include intercepted missiles over Makkah and Jeddah yesterday. 

In November 2017, the Houthis had claimed responsibility for a ballistic missile strike against Riyadh, a demonstration of the modern war-making capability. The latest drone attack, which flew more than 800km into Saudi territory, is further proof. 

This drone attack also demonstrates the indirect ways in which Iranian proxies can strike back at American allies as the US deploys military forces to the region, while Tehran can claim plausible deniability. As Trump seeks a military spectacle of confronting Iran, this show of armed might has already resulted in unforeseen circumstances.

Drones in the age of post-modern warfare  

The Houthis had successfully deployed a drone on 10 January to assassinate officers of the Saudi-led coalition at Al Anad airbase in Yemen, which was once the headquarters for US forces overseeing the drone war against Al Qaeda.

It is worth contextualising the latest Houthi drone attack within American history of drones. 

In Arthur Holland Michel’s December 2015 article A History of Violence” forWired magazine, he writes of an event that occurred on 7 October 2001. A pilot sat in a trailer at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remotely piloting a predator drone over Kandahar, more than 11,000 kilometres away. 

The drone would occasionally shut down due to a power issue, which software engineers in California had to fix while the aircraft was still gliding in the air. The target was a truck parked outside a compound thought to be hiding Mullah Omar: “It was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in combat. It was the first time a modern drone had ever killed a human being.” 

In a previous article for TRT on the American military deployment to the Gulf over the last week, I used a definition of the “postmodern as the culture of the easy-edit, a time when science and technology allow us to change just about anything”. 

The first drone attack in 2001 reveals aspects of the easy edit. It was coders in California that kept the drone over Afghanistan flying, editing the power issues on a computer monitor, while the pilot watched the target through a pixelated screen. Distances had been made relatively obsolete by the new technology, linking Virginia to California to Afghanistan, symbolising the globalisation of an aerial assassination.     

This attack ushered in the drone wars and for a decade the US had a monopoly on drones, such as the “predator” and “reaper”, but over time, other actors in the Middle East would soon embrace this technology. 

The Houthi drone attack

Daesh demonstrated the post-modern aspects of hobby drones. The procurement of the drone, its remote control and the dissemination of drone attack footage through cyberspace were all enabled by, “the age of the easy edit.”

Commercial drones are easily available on the Internet, in most cases controlled by a smartphone connected to remote control, and the digital footage captured by the drone is then later used as propaganda. 

However, the Houthi drone attack demonstrated a new level of sophistication, particularly regarding the distances they can travel. 

In July 2018, a drone detonated at Abu Dhabi airport, causing minor damage, but sending a message to the UAE, which is involved in the war against the Houthis, that they are not invulnerable.  In the same month, a drone struck a Saudi Aramco oil refinery outside the capital Riyadh.

In March 2019, a Houthi drone flew 130km from the Yemeni border over the Saudi Al-Shuqayq water treatment plant, not attacking it, but releasing video footage that even this precious resource can be reached. 

The Houthi drones are locally produced based on the Iranian Qasef-1 design. In the modern age of warfare, a pilot flying a combat aircraft had to be physically located in the proximate range of the target to attack it. A ballistic missile could have done the same but once it was launched, it is the laws of physics and gravity that determine if the warhead hits the trajectory. The human launching the projectile has little control over the missile once its airborne. 

The post-modern aspect of the latest drone attack was that it was guided by satellite technology, as the drone flying at such a long rage depended on a satellite data link for information to be sent back to the pilot in Yemen. 

The Houthis have no known communications satellites and relied on commercially available satellite space. The latest attack demonstrated a sophisticated level of coordination amongst the Houthis as imagery analysts, uplink engineers, mechanics and the pilot crews had work in unison for the attack to succeed, just like the 2001 US drone strike in Afghanistan. 

The global and regional implications of the drone attack

The drone attack on a Saudi oil facility demonstrates how a non-state actor, the Houthis, could impact the price of a commodity that the modern world depends on, oil. Had the attacks wreaked more damage, as future attacks could, it would certainly affect the price per barrel.

Second, the age of the easy edit demonstrates how easy it is for a non-state actor like the Houthis to involve themselves in a great power geopolitical conflict between the US and Iran. 

The UN-sponsored peace plan for Yemen has resulted in the Houthis withdrawing from the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a significant hurdle in resolving the conflict there. Just as there is a slight glimpse of hope for prospects of peace in one country, the provocation of Trump and his national security advisor, John Bolton, in the Gulf demonstrates how easily they can undermine this fragile effort. 

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