The Houthis’ Red Sea missile and drone attack: Drivers and implications

On Oct. 19, the Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, confirmed that the Iran-backed Houthi militia targeted the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, in the Red Sea. The USS Carney reportedly intercepted three cruise missiles and several drones without sustaining any damage or casualties. Although the Houthis have yet to claim responsibility for the attack, the drones and missiles were likely fired from north-western, Houthi-held positions in Hodeida and Hajjah governorates on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and were headed “north” without an established target at the time of reporting. Since September, the Houthis have reportedly intensified their naval military training in al-Luhayya district in northern Hodeida and brought in new medium and heavy weapons capabilities, suggesting that they intend to launch an attack on strategic maritime and trade routes, a senior military official told the author.

While the primary target of the missiles and drones has yet to be established due to a lack of technical analysis of the debris, Ryder said they were headed “potentially towards … Israel.” The attack appears to be largely symbolic, aimed at sending a political message as the Houthis reaffirm their role as part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.” When they have targeted military and commercial ships with the intent of causing damage in the past, the Houthis have deployed remote-controlled explosive boats and naval mines, alongside missiles and drones. That was not the case in this attack, however. The latest Houthi attack coincided with pro-Iranian militant groups targeting U.S. bases and bases hosting American troops elsewhere in the region, such as the al-Tanf garrison in Syria and al-Asad airbase in Iraq. These attacks came just a few days after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian indicated that the Axis of Resistance could take “pre-emptive action” and warned of a “multiple front” war if Israel invades Gaza and the U.S. becomes engaged in the conflict.

Nevertheless, the latest Houthi attack in the southern Red Sea after nine years of indecisive warfare reflects the international and regional management of the Yemen file. In particular, it underscores the strategic miscalculation of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which hampered, under British and American pressure, the recapture of Hodeida, as well as the sudden and unjustified withdrawal of the Joint Forces, led by Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh, from over 100 km of territory along Hodeida’s southern coast against the backdrop of talks between the United Arab Emirates and Iran in November 2021. As noted at the time by the author, “The Houthis have now stretched their presence along the southern Red Sea and can expand the scope of their illicit activities and threats to maritime security and trade.”

Houthi motives

There are several external and internal drivers behind the Houthi attacks. Externally, first, the hardline wing of the Houthis, which supported the surprise targeting of Bahraini forces stationed by the Saudi-Yemeni border on Sept. 25, seeks to reinforce the group’s regional affiliation under the Axis of Resistance. Iran’s influence on this wing is very strong and the result of long-term political, military, and financial investment.

Second, the Houthis, like other pro-Iranian groups, want to cement their regional status as a resistance movement and secure further support from Arab and Muslim populations.

Third, the Houthis also seek to send a message to the United States that in the future they could target U.S. or Israeli interests in the region, including those passing through the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandab Strait.

Internally, there are four primary motives. First, the Houthis have been facing growing criticism of their claims that they support Palestine or are engaged in a permanent war with Israel as their slogan — “God is the greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam” — suggests. On Oct. 10, Houthi leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi said if the U.S. were to militarily intervene directly in Gaza, his group would fire drones and missiles, among other military actions coordinated with the Axis of Resistance. Regardless of whether the Houthis can actually engage in a protracted regional war vis-à-vis Israel and the U.S. along with other members of the Axis of Resistance, the Houthi leader declared their intent to launch attacks, including symbolic ones.

Second, the Houthis are also seeking to leverage the ongoing escalation to boost their weak public support in Yemen and beyond against the backdrop of cautious and inadequate responses by the governments of many Arab and Muslim countries. The Houthis’ recent mass arrest of at least 1,500 civilians celebrating the 61st anniversary of the Sept. 26, 1962 revolution that established the Yemen Arab Republic in Sanaa and Ibb governorates highlights the scale of the crisis of confidence and lack of support they face, exacerbated by their failure to deliver services and pay salaries for more than five years. The Houthis fear mass gatherings due to the potential for infiltration and mobilization against the group’s practices and ideology. As a result, over the past two weeks they have dictated the locations where solidarity protests with Palestine will be held for internal security reasons.

Third, while the attack boosts the morale of Houthi forces, supporters, and sympathizers in the short term, the overall geopolitical development also helps the Houthis to distract the public and attempt to contain rising discontent through the use of populist rhetoric.

Fourth, the Houthis also seek to increase their leverage in the ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks, which have not ceased despite recent changes in regional dynamics. To the contrary, these talks have gained added momentum in recent months even as the international community is once again distracted by geopolitical developments. On Oct. 18, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, who handles the Yemen file, met with the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council to discuss developments in the talks and the need for a comprehensive intra-Yemeni political solution. Yazeed al-Jeddawy, a research coordinator at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, told MEI that, “Saudi Arabia fears the collapse of talks and a return to square one, including to American pressure.” Americans diplomats engaged in talks directly or indirectly, who have slowed down the rush to conclude an agreement at any cost, will certainly pass messages to the Houthis through Saudi Arabia, Oman, and other channels. Given Saudi Arabia’s resolve to support de-escalation and its reaffirmed intent to focus on internal development, most notably Vision 2030, Riyadh would prefer not to re-engage in open, direct, and protracted military confrontation with the Houthis.

Houthi targeting of Israel is a question of will, not ability

Houthi conventional and non-conventional capabilities, including those acquired from Iran and its network as well as those seized from the Yemeni state during the 2014 coup and enhanced with support from the Axis of Resistance, have hit targets 900 km-1,300 km away, such as Riyadh, Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and Abu Dhabi. With missiles reportedly capable of striking targets up to 2,500 km away, the Houthi targeting of Israel is a question of will rather than ability and could be carried out from bunkers within Sanaa, if the group chooses to do so. In 2022, pro-Houthi Brig. Gen. Abdallah al-Jifri alluded to this capability, warning that, “The very same missiles and drones that have reached the UAE today will reach Tel Aviv and the Eilat Port. There are also other missiles and drones with a longer range — a range of 2,500 km — and can go beyond the Zionist entity.” In a military parade on the ninth anniversary of the coup on Sept. 21, 2023, the Houthis unveiled new short-range and long-range capabilities, including the following:

Typhoon or Toufan long-range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,350-1,900 km, which are reminiscent of Iran’s Ghadr ballistic missiles

Quds-4 and Quds Z-0 land attack cruise missiles that can engage land and naval targets

Asef and Falaq sea denial systems, with a range of 200 km and 300 km, respectively, akin to Iran’s Khalij-e Fars anti-ship missiles

Previously known weapons with medium- and long-range strike capabilities include:

Samad 2/3/4 drones, reminiscent of Iran’s Shahed drones, with a reported range of 1,200 km-1,500 km, 1,300 km-1,700 km, and 2,000 km, respectively

Wa’id drones, similar to Iran’s Shahed 136, with a reported range of 2,500 km

Quds-2 cruise missiles, similar to Iran’s Soumar, with a reported range of up to 1,350 km

Burkan-2H/3 missiles, reminiscent of Iran’s Qiam, with a reported range of 1,000 km and 1,200 km, respectively

Immediate implications

The latest Houthi drone and missile attack in the Red Sea has a number of implications for Yemen, the region, and regional and international security. First, the hardliner Houthi wing, regardless of whether and how future peace talks progress, is reasserting the strategic primacy of Houthi ties to the Axis of Resistance project. In particular, the attack itself and the technological advancement of Houthi capabilities signal the militia’s will to be militarily engaged in regionalized or internationalized wars or tensions under certain circumstances.

Second, the attack highlights the conspicuous risks and threats posed by the ungoverned proliferation of long-range conventional and non-conventional capabilities in the hands of hybrid and non-state actors. This also speaks to consistent mismanagement or inconsistent appeasement policies on the part of the U.S. and Europe. Attacks on maritime and trade routes, or on distant targets passing through neighboring countries, once again call into question the dividends of pushing for a quick but fragile peace in Yemen that would benefit unaccountable hybrid actors like the Houthis. Strategic Western engagement in Yemen that is conscious of long-term human development, reconstruction, and regional security needs remains lacking.

Third, the missile and drone strike, coupled with other coordinated attacks in Syria and Iraq, highlights how Iran has strategically outsourced the risk of direct confrontation via the Axis of Resistance and diffused responsibility, a move that increases its leverage in direct and back-channel negotiations as well as its regional influence.

Fourth, the location of the attacks will not only result in further militarization of Yemeni waters and islands in the Red and Arabian seas, but also the long-term commitment to enhance deterrence, freedom of navigation, and interception operations. Between 2016 and 2023, the U.S., Saudi, Australian, British, and French navies interdicted more than 17 Iran-supplied arms shipments, destined for the Houthis, inclusive of surface-to-air missiles, cruise missile components, Dehlavieh anti-tank guided missiles, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and parts for uncrewed drones and waterborne improvised explosive devices.

Fifth, it is unclear how the attack will affect Saudi-Houthi dynamics, given Riyadh’s commitment to turn the page on the war, but it is near certain that the road to a sustainable, just peace in Yemen still remains out of sight.

Sixth, the United States and its partners are more likely than before to show an expanded commitment to deepen military and security support for the Government of Yemen and/or forces stationed along the Red Sea under the leadership of Presidential Leadership Council member Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh.

Seventh, Yemen’s position toward the Palestinian cause is unchanged, but it remains to be seen whether the Houthis through a single political messaging attack will be able to achieve long-term gains, both internally and externally. Overall, this incident once again raises the question of which partner the world wants to have in Yemen.

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