What Did the Houthis’ Attempted Bombing of Israel Aim to Achieve?

Yves here. Andrew Korybko provides a useful update on the Houthis so-far eyepoking of Israel (not that they have the military clout to do all that much more). One bit where I quibble with Korybko is his depiction of the Saudi-Israel peace treaty negotiation as a happening event. Even though some commentators depicted derailing these US brokered-talks as a motivation for the Hamas October 7 attacks, experts pointed out that that scheme was not going anywhere before the Hamas strikes. And they certainly are not going anywhere now, given the deliberately rude treatment Antony Blinken has been receiving all over the Middle East, even in Israel.

My surmise (readers encouraged to correct and/or better calibrate) is that the (as widely depicted) US trying to get the Saudis and Israel to enter into what would have been a historical agreement was to shore up the visible loss of US influence in the region, demonstrated by China successfully midwifing a pact between Iran and the Saudis. The Saudis lost nothing by playing along with Team Biden, at least up to a point.

Now admitted, the Houthis may not have gotten that memo, or even if they heard credible rumors along those likes, that the Saudis were engaging in eyewash so as to preserve at least a level of decent relations with Washington, they may have though it prudent not to take them as gospel.

By Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst who specializes in the global systemic transition to multipolarity in the New Cold War. He has a PhD from MGIMO, which is under the umbrella of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Originally published at his website

The Houthis’ attempted bombing of Israel is a major move because it was arguably approved by Iran, which authorized this attack despite the risk that it could worsen relations with Saudi Arabia.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels recently released footage purporting to show the drones and missiles that they claim to have launched at Israel. Their spokesman’s full-throated support for Hamas was wrongly interpreted by some social media users as a declaration of war against Israel by the Yemeni state, the perception of which was rubbished by its internationally recognized government’s Ambassador to Russia. The self-professed Jewish State also downplayed it too and said that it isn’t at war with Yemen.

This group’s attempted bombing of Israel took place a few days after Beirut-based Al Mayadeen claimed without evidence that the Houthis had earlier attacked an alleged Israeli base in Eritrea, which the latter’s Minister of Information denied. This analysis here argues that the purpose behind that report was to boost the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance’s morale amidst Hezbollah’s reluctance to wage all-out war against Israel in support of Hamas by opening up a second front to distract it from Gaza.

Since then, the Houthis actually did try to attack Israel, albeit directly instead of via third countries like Eritrea where there’s no credible reason to believe that it even has a base. In hindsight, Al Mayadeen’s report either pressured that group to do something tangible or it was designed to precondition their targeted audience of Resistance Axis supporters to expect the aforesaid after being tipped off about it. Speculation about that outlet’s motives aside, it’s now a fact that the Houthis have joined the fray.

This naturally leads to the question of what they aimed to achieve by doing so. First and foremost, they likely wanted to signal to their ideological allies that they won’t sit aside while the latest Israeli-Hamas war rages in Gaza. At the very least, this group felt obligated to send a few projectiles towards the conflict zone out of solidarity. It’s unclear whether more will be forthcoming, but the point is that this attempted bombing sought to reinforce their credentials as reliable members of the Resistance Axis.

Secondly, there’s no doubt that the Houthis also wanted to put pressure on Saudi Arabia seeing as how their projectiles had to have traveled through its airspace en route to the self-professed Jewish State. This risks ruining their ongoing peace talks, but the group seemingly calculated that showing solidarity with their allies takes precedence over all else, including the chance that this rekindles their mostly frozen conflict with the Kingdom, whether deliberately or by miscalculation.

The abovementioned observation suggests that: 1) their peace talks might have stalled so the Houthis have stopped exercising self-restraint, possibly as a tactic for coercing concessions from Saudi Arabia; 2) they want to provoke the Saudis into intercepting those projectiles in Israel’s defense (whether on their own prerogative or at Israel’s request) and thus damaging their reputation in many Muslims’ eyes; and 3) the Chinese-brokered Iranian-Saudi rapprochement could be imperiled by this latest development.

The last of these three observations leads to the final goal that the Houthis might have sought to achieve via their attempted bombing of Israel, which was either to unilaterally exacerbate the security dilemma between those two that’s improved over the past year or do so at their Iranian ally’s behest. Neither motive can be known for sure, but the first scenario suggests that this group is going rogue while the second suggests that Tehran is willing to risk its relations with Riyadh as part of opportunistic power play.

The former is a lot less likely than the latter, however, which raises serious concerns for regional stability since any subsequent deterioration of bilateral ties would have far-reaching reverberations. Apart from the worst-case scenario of large-scale hostilities recommencing in Yemen, their restored rivalry could: 1) impede BRICS’ multilateral efforts to accelerate financial multipolarity processes; 2) pressure Russia and China to take one’s side at the other’s expense; and 3) see the return of proxy warfare between them.

Considering the enormity of what’s at stake, it can therefore be concluded that the Houthis’ attempted bombing of Israel is a major move because it was arguably approved by Iran, which authorized this attack despite the risk that it could worsen relations with Saudi Arabia. This throws the Kingdom into a dilemma since intercepting these projectiles and/or militarily retailing against that group in Yemen might be exactly what those two want it to do but not responding at all also entails some risks to its interests too.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘Secondly, there’s no doubt that the Houthis also wanted to put pressure on Saudi Arabia seeing as how their projectiles had to have traveled through its airspace en route to the self-professed Jewish State.’

    Maybe. Or the message could have been on one level that the Houthis are telling the Saudis that as they have made peace with Iran, that they do not have to worry any longer about those missiles hitting Saudi oil infrastructure or airports. Just give those missiles a pass and all will be well. At any rate, if you look at a map you will see that those Houthi missiles have to go over Saudi Arabia & Jordan as that is the direct line to hit Israel and probably do not have the ability to go around them. The US might possibly be demanding that the Saudis shoot those drones and missiles down but the Saudis can tell Washington ‘Look. We gave you all our spare Patriot missiles so that you could send them to the Ukraine. We no longer have the missiles to take pot shots at those missiles as they are reserved solely for the defence of the Kingdom.’

  2. Lex

    Or maybe it was green lit by the Saudis. Or even just quietly condoned. Everyone is poking fingers in the US’s eye at this point, and while the Yemeni attack (or even more of them) won’t materially change the situation in Gaza, it does represent one more thing for the US-Israel to concern itself with as evidenced by both sending assets into the Red Sea.

    I don’t think there needs to be activation of grand plans and conspiracies. In fact, the lack of them is what makes a situation like this so dangerous: the unpredictable avenues for cascading escalations. Yemeni leadership may have simply decided that they’d do something; the lack of follow up attacks may in fact be Tehran suggesting that they calm down a bit.

    Hezbollah isn’t “doing nothing”. It’s in fairly constant, low level skirmishes with the IDF. And it is causing casualties. More importantly, it is pinning down a large portion of Israeli assets. The problem for Israel is that 8% of its working age population is currently serving or called up to the IDF. That’s unsustainable and arguably not enough to manage the Lebanese border and Gaza and the West Bank simultaneously. Finally, Hezbollah is constrained because a serious attack means massive air strikes from Israel and the US on Lebanon.

    Realism is understanding and acting on your own weaknesses and limitations as much as understanding that other nations (groups) have interests. Acting like the US or Israel, without recognizing your own constraints, is the most dangerous behavior.

      1. Lex

        Coincidence on the agreement with Nixon as I don’t do any of the podcast / video style of information acquisition. But I sure am glad someone with an audience is raising the issue. It’s very explanatory for understanding the behavior of Putin or Xi, etc. They recognize the limits of their power and constraints on their action. The greatest immediate danger is that limits on US power are increasing but leadership refuses to accept it and act within the constraints. That’s a historical recipe for disastrous defeats.

    1. José Freitas

      It is also seriously degrading Israel’s ISR capabilities in the border, taking out cameras, radar arrays, etc… by some accounts, more than half are gone.

    2. Kooshy

      Well said, but even more importantly never before Israel and her US/western allies have been self destructing as much as now in the eye of the global public. As can bee seen, the western powers truly have lost the narrative on this war, as well as political war in UN and Arab capitals, can’t set the agenda on how to end the war, and they have lost the military war regardless of mass slaughter of civilians and children and bombing hospitals in over a month Israeli/US military can’t show single achievement in this war. So one wonders with so much self destruction why should resistance open a second front, and give the Israel/US a tool to mobilize public opinions and form a coalition against resistance front. Doing so is playing in hand of US and throwing the ball in their court

  3. Louis Fyne

    The Saudis always have self-proclaimed that they are the “defenders of the faith” (Mecca)

    When the Saudis sit by, throw platitudes while provincials in Yemen stand up to (inconsequentially, except maybe divert the USS Eisenhower to the Red Sea) and fight Israel may not impress the FT-NPR-DC crowd, but I presume that it bolsters the image among the bottom 90% of Arabs and reflects poorly on the House of Saud.

    Dunno as I am not the man/woman on the street in Amman, Cairo.

  4. begob

    One other purpose may be to exhaust naval defences – I read one suggestion that the USN destroyer engaged in the Red Sea used most, if not all, of its stock of interceptors.

  5. JE McKellar

    The Houthi missiles launched on October 20 were intercepted by missiles from a USN destroyer operating in the Red Sea. After that attack, and the Russian deployment of hypersonic anti-ship missiles to the Black Sea, the USN repositioned a carrier battle group from the eastern Med to the Red Sea, presumably both to help protect the carrier and use the battle group to shield Israel from Houthi attacks.

    Here’s the rub, for defense the US Navy uses a collection of very expensive ship-launched anti-air missiles, the Standard, broadly equivalent to the Patriot system. The war in Ukraine, as well as the need to shore up defenses in the Pacific, has depleted NATO stocks of land-based SAMs, but hereto the naval equivalents have gone unused. For every cheap Houthi missile fired off, the USN has to fire off one or two of their expensive Standard missiles. Each destroyer has a limited supply, less than a hundred, so any protracted missile barrage will deplete their magazines and force the whole battle group back to port to resupply.

    Just as in Ukraine, the longer the conflict goes on, the more US stocks of SAMs will be depleted, and then the USN will be unable to deploy until US industry has a chance to build new missiles.

    1. Louis Fyne

      A VLS-equipped (vertical launch system) US cruiser/destroyer cannot have its missiles restocked at sea.

      The VLS is a Cold War-era system, 1970’s designers (obviously) didn’t foresee the ubiquitous projectiles of the 2020’s….and the US Navy enjoyed relative superiority against the Soviet Navy

      An at-sea system was attempted but too expensive and cumbersome

      1. Altandmain

        It seems that the US is going to be at a major disadvantage in many fields because it is heavily attached to a lot of legacy systems. The VLS system the US uses does not seem to have anything like the Russian Zircon missile either. American attempts to develop a hypersonic missile have thus far been unsuccessful.

        One wonders why there are so many legacy systems given how high the US military budget is. I can only imagine how much money was wasted or fed into the military corporations over the last few decades. Americans did not heed former President Eisenhower and his warnings about the military industrial complex. Not only is the corporations that are profit driven responsible for the rapid rise of military spending, but all of this spending results in an ineffective military.

        If there is a major conflict, I can see the US doing worse than many people expect. There’s also a very legacy doctrine unfit for the age of hypersonic missiles and large numbers of cheaper drones.

        Plus the US is no longer the world’s industrial manufacturing leader and its scientific research is also slipping rapidly behind nations like China.

        1. scott s.

          VLS Mk-41 is just a launcher. You can stuff various things in there such as quad-pac RIM-162 ESSM missiles. Mk-57 is more or less a follow-on with similar design. The key is the “brain” of the system, the LCU, currently Mk-235. It’s a long way from “cold war legacy design”. The comment as regards “legacy” systems sounds like a call for Rumsfeld “transformation”. That’s why he killed the Crusader 155mm self propelled artillery (and fired Shinseki), since it was obvious 155 artillery was a legacy system with no use on a modern battlefield.

  6. ISL

    There also is the likelihood this was done to provide info on US / Israeli anti-missile systems for missiles from a distance. Iran okayed, Russia and Chinese ISR collected analysis at a minimum.

    1. marku52

      Yes, nice to get your enemy’s AD radars all lit up so you can locate and analyze them. KSA might have to move some of them now.

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