How Houthi Attacks Affect Both the Israel-Hamas Conflict and Yemen’s Own Civil War – and Could Put Pressure on US, Saudi Arabia

Yves here. Those who have the intestinal fortitude to watch the war in Gaza may have noticed that the Houthis are trying to mix it up with Israel and the US is Not Happy. For instance:

The article below is cool on the idea that the Houthis can threaten Israel to any meaningful degree. The US (over)reaction would seem to suggest otherwise. Readers?

By Mahad Dararm Ph.D. Student of Political Science, Colorado State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Yemen’s Houthi movement launched missiles and drones at Israel on Oct. 31, 2023 – provoking fears of a dangerous escalation of the Middle East conflict.<

With the militia – which controls part of the Arabian Peninsula state – vowing further attacks, Israel countered by sending missile boats to the Red Sea. They join U.S. warships already deployed in the area.

The Conversation U.S. turned to Mahad Darar, a Yemeni politics expert at Colorado State University, to explain what is behind the Houthis’ involvement in the war – and how it could risk not only widening the conflict but reigniting hostilities in Yemen itself.

Who Are the Houthis?

The Houthi group, also known as Ansar Allah, is an armed militia of the Zaydi Shia sect in Yemen. They ousted Yemen’s transitional government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a 2014 coup and have since been engaged in a bloody civil war with the ousted administration, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. A truce has stemmed fighting in the country, with the Houthis currently in control of most of northern Yemen.

Why Did the Houthis Attack Israel?

In the first analysis, one can argue that the Houthis are part of a broader regional alliance with Iran. As such, the attack on Israel can be seen as showcasing both the Houthis’ – and Iran’s – military capabilities to both local and regional audiences. Indeed, some analysts argue that the reason Tehran supplied the Houthis with long-range missiles was so it could pose a threat to both Israel and also Tehran’s rival in the region: Saudi Arabia.

However, although it may seem that the Houthis are acting as an Iranian proxy, the main reason the militia launched the attack could be to gain domestic support. Houthi leadership may be trying to present the group as the dominant force in Yemen willing to challenge Israel – a country that is generally unpopular in the Arab world.

This approach helps the Houthis outmaneuver local rivals and unite the Yemeni public behind the cause of Palestinian liberation. It also allows the militia to carve out a unique stance in the region, setting them apart from Arab governments that have so far been unwilling to take strong action against Israel – such as severing ties in the case of more Israel-friendly states, such as United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others.

In particular, the Houthis will want to present a different face to the Arab world than Saudi Arabia, which had been looking to normalize ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia, it should be added, is the main backer of the internationally recognized Yemeni government – one of the Houthis’ main opponents in the civil war.

It is also important to note that there appears to be growing popular discontent in Arab countries over the perceived weak stance of their governments toward Israel. But due to the authoritarian nature of many of these regimes, public opinion has little influence on policy.

This does not, of course, change the fact that the Houthis themselves run a theocratic regime with no democratic values.

Plus, launching a missile or a couple of drones is relatively cheap for the Houthis, especially considering the benefits they might gain from the action.

How Could the Houthi Attack Affect the Israel-Hamas Conflict?

Some analysts have suggested that an attack by the Houthis heightens the chances of overwhelming Israel’s defense systems, if it forms part of a coordinated effort involving Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But this idea falls short for two reasons:

First, the Houthis likely have fewer ballistic missiles than Hezbollah and Hamas and realistically stand little chance of inflicting much damage on Israel. Moreover, they will be mindful of keeping these missiles for their own use in the ongoing civil war in Yemen – which poses a more immediate threat to the group than Israel does.

The threat from the Houthis toward Israel is far smaller than both Hezbollah and Hamas, whose fighters can cross a land border to enter Israel.

Second, the imprecision of the Houthi missiles means that any attack also poses a risk to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as these projectiles could land in their territories and cause damage. In fact, drones reportedly launched by the Houthis have already caused explosions after erroneously crashing in Egypt.

Could the Houthi Attack Affect US Thinking on the Conflict?

There is a scenario in which the Houthi attacks may benefit Israel. The strike plays into a narrative that Israel is facing a multi-front war sponsored by Iran, potentially escalating tensions between Iran and both Israel and the United States.

And this could bolster the arguments of hawks within the U.S. foreign policy establishment who are pushing the U.S. toward a more confrontational stance against Iran.

On the flip side, any perceived threat from the Houthis gives Iran more of a negotiation card in the wider context of regional disputes such as over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran will be keen to position itself as a country with an array of proxies, capable of wreaking havoc in the region should it wish.

Could the Attack Be Iran’s Bidding?

Houthi actions primarily serve their own interests rather than those of Iran.

And unlike Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria – which have recently attacked U.S. troops – the Houthis have not targeted U.S. forces in the region. If the Houthis were truly in the same basket as other Iranian proxies, I believe they would have targeted the nearest U.S. stationed base, which is Djibouti.

But Houthi leadership will be mindful that such an attack would not only be unpopular among the Yemeni population but also would potentially come at a high cost to themselves.

Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, which are focused on resisting Israeli occupation, the Houthis are primarily concerned with local issues within Yemen. Historically, member of the Zaydi Shia sect have managed Yemen’s issues without foreign support, going back hundreds of years before they were overthrown in 1962.

That said, the Houthis haven’t shied away from appearing aligned with Iran of late, mainly because they rely heavily on Iranian supplies of weapons.

What Could This Mean for the Yemen Civil War?

Negotiations between Houthis, Saudis and the Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government forces are at a delicate point.

Recently, it was reported that the Houthis killed four Saudi soldiers just days after Saudi Arabia shot down a missilefrom the Houthis that was headed for Israel.

In the latest Houthi attack, the missiles passed through Saudi territory uninterrupted before being shot down by Israel. It is unclear whether this is an indication that the Saudis heeded the Houthis’ warning, which is potentially why they didn’t shoot down the latest missiles. To know more about the true state of Saudi-Houthi negotiations, there needs to be greater evidence, such as increased clashes between the Saudis and Houthis, or even a direct attack by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia.

But if Houthi missile attacks escalate in the coming days, it could put Saudi Arabia in a difficult spot. At that point, the Saudis would face a difficult choice. They could allow the Houthis’ missiles to continue passing through their land or they could try to shoot them down. But that would risk jeopardizing diplomatic efforts with both the Houthis and Iran. And that, I feel, seems very unlikely.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’ve seen it suggested by more than one source that Iran is encouraging the Houthi to launch missiles as a convenient and deniable method to assess US Navy response capabilities to missile attacks, and possibly test out Israels Arrow system (a longer range alternative to Iron Dome). If so, they’ve probably gained a lot of useful data as both the USN and Israel responded immediately when it may have been wiser to just let those crude missiles do their thing.

    But I think the primary purpose is political – mostly to embarrass the Saudi’s and other Gulf States and portray themselves as a more pan-Arabic force. Historically, they’ve had much closer links to Hizbollah as they are more closely associated with Shia beliefs, but they seem to have developed links to Hamas in recent years and may even have been training Hamas members.

    1. Ignacio

      If I recall correctly, the Houthis have had ties and support from Qatar (I don’t know for how long) which also supports Hamas. There is another link that might be more important in this issue. Just saying, no expert on the region.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Several days ago two secret Israeli bases in Eritrea came under attack and a senior officer was killed. I had assumed that local forces had done it but perhaps not. Or perhaps those locals had help from the Houthis-

    If nothing else, these missile and drone attacks are slowly running down the stocks of missiles that both the US and Israel have in stock. And yet both nations have to react and cannot just let them hit Israel. The Houthis appear to know what they are doing and what the effect of their attacks will be long term.

  3. Louis Fyne

    Israel needs a quick shock-awe-style win. Everyone who is not-Israel wins if this is a war of attrition (except civilians of course).

    While it is tempting to create a thesis that there is one over-arching plan orchestrated by (insert Puppet-master), the Houthis found a low-cost way to raise their profile, “do the right thing” as Muslims, and incidentally further Iranian interests.

    Now….why don’t the Houthis just target some Greek-owned cargo ships or a tanker bound for Rotterdam? Or target Israeli electricity plants instead of a resort town?

    Maybe we are only at step 1 of their escalation ladder, maybe they don’t have that ability.

  4. podcastkid

    Seems like PlutoniumKun makes two plausible points.

    Reports I’ve heard are calling them cruise missiles, so the photos above may not be of the ones they’re firing off? If they are cruise missiles, they could do some damage. They could go exactly to targets. Having them might help keep the peace a while with SA. Or, Arrow seems to be working so far; so, if SA has Arrow, they might be less of a threat to SA. Nevertheless, if one gets through to a refinery, it could go exactly where it needs to.

    1. Louis Fyne

      fair presumption that the missiles used by the Israelis costs more than the missile used by the Houthi.

      even if strict military failures, Houthi missiles bleed the Israeli/US treasury

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The Houthi have proven very adept at making simple long range weapons with probable Iranian and North Korean help. Originally, their ballistic missiles were repurposed SAM’s, but they now can make their own missiles based on the old Scud (via Iranian and NK versions). They may have worked out how to use simple GPS guidance to make them far more effective than the old Scud. These are very simple compared to a modern missile such as an Iskander, but still potentially effective, especially if they can add on decoys and some form of guidance.

      Their cruise missiles are most likely simple lawnmower engined drones like the Iranian Ababil. Easy enough to shoot down, but very cheap to make and so can overwhelm defenses through sheer numbers. They can also have a surprisingly long range as they don’t use much fuel.

  5. danpaco

    I find it remarkable that The Houthi have the ability to strike targets 1800Km away with drones and missiles yet the Ukrainians can barely strike into Russia.

      1. Rain

        Hahaha, good point!
        I heard a recent podcast of some ‘military expert’ (apologies, name forgotten) who said a sizeable chunk of the US/NATO equipment supplied to Ukraine has been faulty, and need to be forwarded onto Poland repair.

    1. Cian

      Russian anti-air weapons are decades ahead of anything NATO has.

      For years people have plausibly argued that Iron Dome doesn’t really work. And the Patriot system didn’t even work in the 90s.

  6. Feral Finster

    The US sees this as a way to keep the House Of Saud on-side.

    Basically, we’ll be happy to be the boots on the ground in Yemen and do the Saudis dirty work for them, as long as they stay as neutral as they can with regard to the genocide of Palestinians.

    And of course, there is the thinly threat of regime change in Riyadh.

    1. digi_owl

      That would get messy quite quickly, as it would free the Wahhabists from any and all agreements they may have with said regime.

      1. Feral Finster

        The expectation would be that the Saudis pay the Wahhabi to sit this one out, and the House of Saud repress them if they won’t take the payment and the hint.

            1. Feral Finster

              The threat here being, that this time around the Americans might be more inclined to the Saudis around instead of nudge them into complying.

            2. digi_owl

              Cozying up to the Russians may also help keep the oil price up.

              And China is probably quite interested in providing engineers etc for that mirrored insanity MBS has planned in the desert.

            3. ChrisRUEcon

              Yep. Another thing the Biden-Blinken-Buffonery has begotten … and note, China getting Iran and KSA to the table. The whole nature of the US-KSA relationship has flipped. KSA calls the shots – because who else is gonna spend billions on US arms annually? And MBS is under no obligation to pick up the phone when Biden calls. US policy is making friends of former foes … and that makes this conflict more unpredictable.

              1. Feral Finster

                China blew up the lie that the world must live with with American injustice because only American hegemony can keep the peace.

                And China did not need to fire so much as a shot.

  7. HH

    Missile defense with current technology puts a disproportionate burden on the defender because the attacker can concentrate attacks while the defender has to defend all important points. For example, if the combined missile forces of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, struck Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant, the plant would be severely damaged or destroyed. There just aren’t enough missile defenses there to block a saturation attack.

    1. digi_owl

      One may also wonder how many modernized Stalin Organs it would take to saturate the missile defense of a US carrier group.

  8. Rip Van Winkle

    I bet nobody in peasant-and-serf Europe during the summer of 1914 or the Serious People during 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis were having as much fun as to be able to watch an FTX / Larry David Super Bowl commercial and dig up a 1976 60 Minutes interview of the Shah Of Iran by Mike Wallace.

  9. Raymond Sim

    The analysis strikes me as egregiously obtuse. So much so that I wonder if it isn’t willful.

    Right now three of Iran’s allies, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Lebanese, are engaged in outright shooting wars with Israel and/or the US. Why? Well, they stand to gain a lot from Iran’s ascension to the role of acknowledged regional hegemon and, even if that doesn’t happen, anything that weakens the American military presence in the region strengthens them by making it easier for Iran to support them, which is key to their domestic strength.

    Perhaps I’m the one being obtuse? This all seems obvious to me.

  10. JohnA

    “It is also important to note that there appears to be growing popular discontent in Arab countries over the perceived weak stance of their governments toward Israel. But due to the authoritarian nature of many of these regimes, public opinion has little influence on policy.”

    LOL. Despite the alleged democratic nature of most western governments, public opinion and the large number of people protesting about the genocidal policies of Israel and demanding a ceasefire, have little influence on policy, either.

    1. hemeantwell

      The article’s breezy “But due to the authoritarian nature of many of these regimes, public opinion has little influence on policy.” glides over consideration of how “authoritarian” political structures in the ME work in relation to different issues. For years authoritarian ME regimes have been successful in dampening down domestic class tensions. But will they be just as effective when trying to contain mass frustration over regime support for a Zionist regime whose policies are increasingly condemned by key religious figures who are capable of inspiring regional religious publics? Especially when Sistani and other religious notables stepped up to support the Palestinians less then a week into the conflict a transnational solidarity was potentiated. And it was done at a time when it, as many people have acknowledged, the ability of the US and its allies to ensure the maintenance of a status quo has been thrown into doubt. There’s a sense in which the years of success of authoritarian govts in quelling mass-level Muslim solidarity has been undergirded by a US-grounded hopelessness, and that’s now dissipating.

  11. Lex

    Most likely it’s not any grand strategy with intricate plans activated from afar. Rather people with the power and willingness to do something even if it won’t change things dramatically.

    Regardless of the reason though, it adds a wrinkle of complexity to the US’s regional response (and Israel’s too). If nothing else it requires attention to the direction and allocation of resources for the potential threat. So if it was part of a plan, I would expect that stretching to be the whole reason. That’s an excellent strategy against a fading empire run by incompetents.

  12. ddt

    Wondering why / how Egypt allowed access to the Red Sea to Israeli ships, I’m assuming via Suez canal. Turkey shut down the Bosphorus to warships from countries not bordering the Red Sea. Can’t the Egyptians do the same?

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