Implications of the Houthis’ Attack on Saudi Cities

The Arab Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen announced on June 23, 2020 that the Houthi militias fired several booby-trapped drones and ballistic missiles towards civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. The hostile objects were  fended off and destroyed.

The spokesman for the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen said that the Joint Forces Command of the Coalition managed to intercept and destroy eight booby-trapped drones and three ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi militias towards the  Kingdom. The drones and missiles targeted civilians and public facilities.

He indicated that this vicious attack was part of the Houthis’ ongoing hostilities and terrorist attacks, the last of which took place on June 22 in the evening and June 23 at dawn.

This attempted attack came at a time when the Kingdom seeks to cease  hostilities between the legitimate government and the Southern Transitional Council. This is  in light of the recent developments in the southern provinces and the differences between the two sides over  the mechanisms to implement  the Riyadh Agreement.

The coalition spokesman Col. Turki Al-Maliki said on June 23, “ In light of the recent developments in regards to  Socotra  Island and Abyan Governorate, the coalition welcomes the response of the legitimate government and the Southern Transitional Council   to Saudi Arabia’s request  for a comprehensive ceasefire and  a meeting to be convened in the Kingdom to move forward in implementing the Riyadh Agreement.” The spokesman called on political and military committees from either side to reconvene to oversee the de-escalation. He reiterated that the coalition always stands by Yemen and its brotherly people to restore its state, security, stability, integrity, and unity.

These attacks were not the first of  their kind to be mounted by the Houthi militia against the Kingdom.  The Houthis have fired  approximately 330 ballistic missiles, all of which were intercepted by Saudi air defense forces. The major attacks carried out by the Houthi militia include the firing of missiles targeting  Makkah, Riyadh, and residential areas in Najran, Assir and Jizan.

As a result of the Houthis’  position on the Riyadh Agreement, the Yemeni government, via Saudi mediation, reached an agreement with the Southern Transitional Council to end the differences between them. These differences emerged due to the Southern Movement’s attempt to militarily control the southern parts of Yemen, and to autonomously govern these areas, especially the city of Aden.

This agreement stipulates that  government forces, as well as the fighters affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council, shall withdraw from the coastal city of Aden, which is considered the interim headquarters of the Yemeni government. The city was seized by the Southern Transitional Council. The conflict between the two sides spilled over into other cities in southern Yemen. The agreement also stipulates that  Saudi forces  will be deployed to Aden to ensure peace and security in the city.

 The agreement, signed in Riyadh on November 5, 2019, in the presence of the Emiratis, included arrangements to establish  a technocratic government made up of 24 ministers, whom the president would appoint —after consultations with the prime minister and political groups. The ministerial positions would be divided equally  between the northern and southern provinces. Also, the two sides agreed on developing a unified vision concerning the country’s  political, economic, military and security arrangements. In addition, they agreed on the participation of the Southern Transitional Council in the government delegation partaking in the final settlement consultations.

The United Nations, Washington, several Arab countries and organizations welcomed the agreement as an important step to settle the ongoing differences in Yemen.  Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths described the Riyadh Agreement as “an important step for our collective efforts to advance a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Yemen.”

For their part, the Houthis rejected the agreement, indicating that it is meaningless to them. To express their rejection of the agreement which seeks to unify the Yemeni front, the Houthis immediately mounted a missile attack  targeting  the locations of the Giants [Al Amaliqah]  Brigade on Yemen’s western coast and Mocha’s port, killing seven  elements of the Giants and wounding others.

As for  the Houthis’ objectives in carrying out  the recent attack, these can be explained as follows:  

First, aborting the Riyadh Agreement: The Kingdom is actively working to unify the Yemeni front  through ensuring that the provisions of the agreement are implemented. The Houthi militia believes that this agreement is not in its interests and threatens its survival. Therefore, it seeks to send a message that any solution which excludes it will be countered with escalation.

Second, easing the pressure put on Iran: Iran is facing unprecedented circumstances as a result of the international pressures imposed on it due to its  nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has threatened to refer the Iran nuclear file to the Security Council and implement the dispute settlement mechanism set out in the nuclear deal, which could lead to the reinstatement of sanctions on Iran which were imposed before the  deal. This comes as Iran is carrying out nuclear activities contravening the nuclear agreement.  The Caesar Act, issued against the Syrian government, will have  negative implications for  the Iranian government, preventing it from taking  advantage of its investments in Syria. Therefore, as one of Iran’s proxies, the Houthi militia seeks  to open a new front to deflect attention from the Iranian arena.  Perhaps this is done on the instruction of Iran to put pressure on the Kingdom, which Iran believes has had a hand in the harsh US policies against it.

Third, possessing a negotiating leverage: There are efforts by important actors in Yemen to end its ongoing crisis. In this respect, the Houthis seeks to be in a good negotiating position to make gains for themselves and Iran, given the fact that  continuation of the war in Yemen serves the interests of Iran.

The commander of the US Central Command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, said on June 19, 2020, “Saudi Arabia genuinely seeks a negotiated end to the conflict in Yemen. I believe they are now at a point where that is what they desire and they’re willing to negotiate and I believe are negotiating in good faith to try to come to that end. The Houthis have an opportunity here, actually, I think to come to an agreement that would give them a lot of the things that they want. Unfortunately, there’s a third party to these negotiations, and that third party is Iran.”

Fourth, stepping up pressure on the Houthis: Through the support offered by the coalition forces to the Yemeni government, the latter now has the capability  to tip the scale in its favor and seize control of more Yemeni territories. This is in addition to the fact that the Houthis are facing mounting casualties.  Hence, the militia is attempting to target Saudi territories to dampen the morale of the Arab coalition forces.

All in all, the Houthis  are no longer making their own decisions when it comes to negotiations or proposals put forward. The Houthis breached previous understandings reached in Kuwait and Geneva. In addition, they undermined the   Stockholm Agreement, and the efforts of the former and current UN chief. The Houthis have not shown commitment to proposals that serve Yemen’s national interests away from foreign agendas. They have nothing left but to echo Iranian interests— they are a tool which Tehran uses whenever it wants.  The Houthis’ advocates have nothing to bring forth other than to take up arms, impacting civilians, in order to make their voices heard.

The international community can now clearly see which party is hindering a political settlement in Yemen. Thus, it should show no tolerance towards those who want this war to drag on.  The international community should also support the efforts of the coalition forces to neutralize and destroy the Houthis’ drones and missile capabilities in order to force them to return to negotiations in accordance with Yemen’s national interests.This would also  protect civilians from  Houthi attacks which contravene  international and humanitarian law. Perhaps it would be better for the Yemeni government to prepare and present a file – which includes the Houthis’ crimes against the Yemeni people-  for decisive international action to be taken against them.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Director of the Military and Security Studies Unit at Rasanah