Whether it was Houthi drones or Iranian cruise missiles, the recent attacks highlight the need to end Yemen’s civil war.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to blame Iran for an airstrike that crippled two Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, attacked by either drones or a cruise missile, even though Yemen’s Houthis have claimed responsibility for the attack.
Any evidence produced by the US or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be politicised and seek to implicate Iran, and the public will have to treat such “intelligence” with scepticism. Yet at the same time, the question remains as to whether the Houthis have the technological means to strike targets at such a far distance, a good 1,300 kilometres away?
An analysis of the Houthis’ past strikes against Riyadh versus Iran’s missile arsenal can offer some insight into this debate, yet a definitive answer is still elusive.
The attacks in the Eastern Province
The attacks struck facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province and if the Houthis were responsible, it would represent the furthest range of their weapons arsenal. The distance serves as the reason why sceptics and Iran war hawks believe the attack originated in Iran or Iraq via Shia militias.
Photographic evidence of the latest strike against the Aramco facility demonstrates the pinpoint precision of the weapons strikes, hitting crude oil processing containers, indicating the planners of the attack knew where to strike for maximum effect.
The US sought to blame Iran or Iranian allied Iraqi Shia militias, arguing that the impact point indicated that the weapons had approached from the north or northwest, the direction of Iraq or Iran. Nonetheless, drones and cruise missiles are manoeuvrable, and thus does not automatically preclude a Yemeni attack from the south. A drone can be steered to their target by a remote pilot, while a cruise missile follows a predetermined path programmed prior to its launch.
Houthi drones or Iranian cruise missiles?
After enduring a crippling Saudi air campaign since 2015, the Houthis definitely have a motive. The Iranian link to the Houthis is exaggerated and the group has its own agency. Occam’s Razor points to the Houthis as past precedent indicates the group, even with outside help, has had success in launching drones over longer distances.
The Houthis had struck Saudi Arabia before with a ballistic missile in November 2017 outside of Riyadh, yet it did little damage as it was intercepted by air defences, while drones have proved more successful.
Here's a brief history:
July 2018 - a drone detonated at Abu Dhabi airport causing minor damage, but sent a message to the UAE—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.
January 2019 - the Houthis successfully deployed a drone to assassinate officers of the Saudi-led coalition, killing five and wounding at least 20 military personnel at Yemen’s Al Anad airbase. That Houthi attack employed an Iranian-made Qasef-1 but used off-the-shelf commercial technology by electronic suppliers based mostly in Asia.
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.
May 2019 - the Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline west of Riyadh. The drone flew more than 800km into Saudi territory, demonstrating a major advance in their war-making capabilities.
That drone was guided by satellite technology, as the drone flying at such a long-range 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. That attack required a sophisticated level of coordination as imagery analysts, uplink engineers, mechanics and the pilot crews had work in unison for the attack to succeed.
The other argument in light of the latest attack focuses on cruise missiles opposed to drones, or a combination of both. The question is whether they were launched from Iran or Yemen?
Iran developed a cruise missile in 2015, the Soumar, based on a Soviet design. The Houthis also unveiled a similar missile in July called Quds-1 missile, probably provided with Iranian aid.
While the missiles are similar, the Houthi version is smaller and has a shorter range, which struck the Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia on 10 June. The Houthis claimed responsibility for this attack.
The Houthi version of the missile does not have the range to target the Eastern Province, which leaves the possibility of the cruise missiles originating in Iran, or an even more unlikely scenario of the Soumars being launched from Yemen.
Nonetheless, neither US nor UK naval vessels in the Gulf seemed to have picked up these missile launches over the Gulf. Missiles or drones launched from Yemen could have evaded Saudi radar.
Ending Yemen’s civil war
While there is no clear answer in regards to who was responsible for the attack, the recent events demonstrate the need to mediate an end to the Yemeni civil war, as Martin Griffins, UN envoy to Yemen, argued after the attack.
The fact that the Houthis are considered the culprit and that the group can claim responsibility with some plausibility demonstrates that Yemen’s civil war cannot be ignored by the international community. Like the Syrian civil war, both conflicts have ramifications beyond their borders. In the case of Yemen, the conflict there demonstrated its potential to disrupt the global petroleum market.
Regardless of who was responsible for the recent attacks, the events serve as a reminder to the international community to end Yemen’s civil war, not start a new war with Iran. Since the latest attacks have affected the oil market, maybe now they will act.
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