November 8, 2023

IntelBrief: Houthi Involvement in Mideast War Hinders Prospects for a Yemen Settlement

Saudi government via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement has launched several volleys of missiles and drones toward Israel in support of Hamas, as Iranian proxies continue to demonstrate a willingness to escalate.
  • The Houthi attacks, which were almost all intercepted, are unlikely to materially affect the course of the Israel-Hamas war or alter U.S. or international policy on the Mideast conflict.
  • The Houthi launches might prove popular inside Yemen but are sure to complicate mediation to bring an end to the movement’s conflict with the Saudi and UAE-backed Republic of Yemen Government.
  • The barrages have triggered growing calls to return the Houthis to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).

On at least three occasions since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Zaidi Shia Houthi movement in Yemen has launched volleys of Iran-supplied land attack cruise missiles and armed drones toward Israel, which is over one thousand miles from Yemen. In virtually all cases, the weapons were intercepted short of reaching their intended target, although in each case, by different regional and global partners. The land attack cruise missiles were likely a variant of the Iranian “Quds-3” missile, which has a reported range of approximately two thousand kilometers. The Houthis displayed their Quds-3 variant in a September 2022 military parade in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The Houthis seized Sanaa from the Republic of Yemen Government in 2014. Of an initial October 19 barrage of five cruise missiles and 30 armed drones, four of the missiles and several of the drones were intercepted by the USS Carney, a guided missile destroyer that was deployed in the northern Red Sea. One of the cruise missiles was reportedly intercepted by a U.S.-supplied Patriot missile battery in Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab coalition that has fought, since March 2015, to try to push the Houthis back to their historic northern Yemen redoubt. On October 27, the Houthis launched two armed drones that were downed or crashed in or near Egypt, including one that hit a building in the Red Sea town of Taba and injured six persons. On October 31, a Houthi volley of ballistic and cruise missiles was destroyed by Israel: a U.S.-made F-35 shot down the cruise missile, and the Arrow Weapons System, jointly developed by the United States and Israel, downed a Houthi ballistic missile apparently targeting the southern Israeli port city of Eilat.

The launches expressed Houthi intent to support Hamas’ battle against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground offensive into Gaza and increased U.S. and international concerns about the potential expansion of the Israel-Hamas war into a regional conflagration. Confirming Houthi responsibility for the October 31 volley, Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree said in a televised statement there would be more such attacks to come "to help the Palestinians to victory." He blamed Israel for instability in the Middle East, saying the "circle of conflict" in the region was being expanded by its "continued crimes.” The attacks indicated that the movement, which receives not only missiles and drones but extensive Iranian funding, was acting in concert with Tehran’s other allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to disrupt Israel’s offensive into Gaza and empower Palestinians and other rejectionists region-wide. However, in contrast to Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria, the Houthi attacks appeared to target Israel, not U.S. forces or U.S. bases in the region. The target selection suggests that Houthi leaders want to send their own message on the Mideast crisis within Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’. Since October 17, Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have launched 28 rocket and armed drone attacks on U.S. positions in eastern Syria and in Iraq, including in Iraqi Kurdish-controlled Irbil. As a practical matter, however, the Houthi attacks, as with assaults on U.S. troops from other Iranian proxies, have had virtually no effect on the course of the Israel-Hamas war, nor have they appeared to influence Israeli, U.S., or global policies on the crisis.

In targeting Israel, the attempted Houthi strikes appeared intended not only to influence the domestic Yemeni audience, but also the Arab and Muslim streets to enhance the Houthis image in the broader region – which has been damaged due to its war with the Saudi-led coalition. Seemingly, the strikes put into action the movement’s slogan: "Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam." By demonstrating a willingness to go beyond mere rhetoric against Israel, the Houthis hope to contrast their movement favorably not only with their rivals in the Republic of Yemen Government but also with the government’s backers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo – as well as bolstering the movement’s image among the respective populations of their rivals. The Houthis might be seeking particularly to embarrass and undermine their key regional rival – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – which, at the time of the October 7 Hamas terror attack, was involved in discussions with U.S. officials on conditions under which the Kingdom might normalize relations with Israel.

However, the Houthi attacks on Israel pose risks to the Houthis’ overall objectives in Yemen. The launches threaten to derail the progress that has been made by a wide range of mediators toward ending the nearly decade-long civil conflict in Yemen – a settlement that the Houthis hope will put them in key positions in or even dominate a post-war national Yemen government. The Houthi attacks are likely to alarm Saudi leaders, who have been holding peace talks with Houthi negotiators, by giving the impression that the Houthis are willing to destabilize the region, possibly at Tehran’s behest, rather than negotiate in good faith on a political solution in Yemen. Even though the missile launches were targeting Israel - not Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates - the barrages seemed to interrupt the de-escalation of combat in Yemen since the April 2022 ceasefire was agreed upon, and which has held tacitly since its formal expiration in October 2022. A few days after the Saudi Patriot battery interception, it was reported that the Houthis killed four Saudi soldiers, raising fears that battlefield combat might reignite. The Houthi missile and drone firings, using Iran-supplied weaponry, also contradict the spirit of a March 2023 rapprochement agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that reportedly contained Iranian commitments to curtail arms shipments to the Houthis.

Posing perhaps even greater risk to the Houthis’ ability to achieve an acceptable outcome in a Yemen settlement is the potential for U.S. leaders to shift toward a harder line against the movement. The missiles and drones launched on October 19 were intercepted by the USS Carney, but could potentially have damaged the ship and killed or wounded U.S. military personnel. That result might have precipitated direct U.S. retaliation against Houthi missile and drone facilities. Even without striking any U.S. persons or assets, the Houthis’ intent to strike Israel might also cause U.S. officials to question their decision to reduce the U.S. military support provided to Saudi and Emirati forces battling the Houthis in Yemen. In 2018, U.S. officials began scaling back the aid in order to pressure Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to turn toward war-ending negotiations with the Houthis and away from a commitment to battlefield victory. Although U.S. officials have not announced any change in policy toward the Houthis since the attacks began, many in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. security expert community now advocate a harder U.S. line toward the Houthis. Some assert that the missile and drone launches at Israel firmly align the group with Iran’s “unity of fronts” strategy to pressure Israel on multiple axes and thus justify restoring the Houthis to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). That designation carries with it substantial U.S. economic sanctions on the designated groups. In early 2021, U.S. officials took the Houthis off the FTO list, arguing that the designation – made in the waning days of the Trump Administration – complicated U.S. efforts to furnish the Yemeni people with humanitarian aid and hindered U.S. diplomacy to achieve a solution to the Yemen war. Still, it is unlikely that U.S. leaders will risk expanding instability in the region by returning the Houthis to the FTO list – and thereby signaling a virtual abandonment of U.S. peace efforts in Yemen.