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Could Yemen's Houthis pose a new threat for the Middle East?

November 4, 2023

Aerial attacks by the Iran-backed militia are unlikely to reach Israel at the moment, but analysts worry about anti-ship missiles and regional instability.

Houthi soldiers stand guard on a missile carrier during an official military parade
Houthi soldiers displayed their latest missiles during a parade in September 2023Image: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

From a military prospective, none of the recent strikes by Houthi rebels in  Yemen directed at Israel can be considered successful.

Since the beginning of Israel's latest conflict in the Gaza Strip following the October 7 terror attacks by the Hamas militant group, Israel's missile defense system has intercepted three Houthi airstrikes with missiles and drones before they could reach Eilat, Israel's southernmost city.

However, the success of the strikes matters less for the Yemeni rebel group, which is part of the Iran-backed "axis of resistance" that opposes Israel and the United States.

"The recent Houthi attacks display only a symbolic or illustrative threat to Israel," Matthew Hedges, a Yemen and Middle East expert in London, told DW.

Farea Al-Muslimi, a Middle East and North Africa research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, agrees. "This war is a golden opportunity for the Houthi group to demonstrate its pro-Palestine, anti-Israel and anti-American position to its local population."

Al-Muslimi also noted that these Houthi attacks were low risk. "Israel is less likely to respond with a substantial new front line," he told DW.

Ahead of his trip to the Middle East, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that he would work to avoid further escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict after Yemen's Houthi rebels and Lebanon's Hezbollah fired attacks on Israel.

Yemen is not fit to become a new front, either. Nine years of civil war, which began when the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government and took control of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 have left the country with a fractured political landscape and damaged infrastructure. The conflict, which is widely regarded as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has also created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.


Displaced Yemenis are seen inside a camp in Sanaa
The civil war between the Iran-backed Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition has pushed Yemen into a deep crisisImage: Xinhua/picture alliance

Houthis stoke pan-Islamic narrative

"While the Houthis aim to unify the Yemeni public for the Palestinian liberation cause on a domestic level, the regional signal is to drive insecurity and instability across the region and to set the Houthis apart from Arab governments that have normalized ties with Israel, like the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, or have attempted to do so, like Saudi Arabia," said Hedges.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel in 2020 in a deal brokered by the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia also seemed to be on a similar course, but talks have since stalled, a consequence of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict.

Many in the Middle East have voiced outrage toward Israel for its continued bombardment of Gaza, especially over a hospital explosion that according to Hamas killed hundreds — for which Israel has denied responsibility.

Houthi supporters rally to show support to Palestinian factions, in Sanaa
Thousands of Yemenis joined the Houthi-led rally in Sanaa in support of Palestinian factions after the October 7 attacks on Israel.Image: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Hedges said that by launching airstrikes toward Israel, "the Houthis put pressure on other communities across the region to align the pan-Islamic narrative whereby the Houthis are responding to Israeli attacks against all Muslims, and by doing so, the Houthis lead the call that all Muslims need to attack Israel."

Infrastructure and weaponry

However, despite Iran's heavy investment in the group's ballistic missiles and drones since 2015, Hedges claimed the Houthis "do not have the same supply chain as other Iranian proxies like the Hezbollah in Lebanon and that they are fairly limited in their long-term ability to conduct these sorts of operations." 

Still, he remains concerned about the Houthi's warfare capability. "They have started to use unmanned submarine missiles, which can multiply the perception or the array of potential threats against Israel and against the West," he said.

Fabian Hinz, who specializes in defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also wrote in a recent analysis on the institute's website that he saw "several previously unseen ballistic- and cruise-missile types of Iranian origin" at a Houthi parade in Sanaa on the ninth anniversary of their takeover of the city in September.

"With Iranian assistance, the Houthis have managed to build up an array of precision-guided rockets, ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles and anti-shipping capabilities in a remarkably short period of time," he wrote.

This array includes a previously unseen anti-ship version of the Tankeel missile, he added.

"If operational, both the anti-ship version of the Tankeel and the previously unveiled Asef, an anti-ship version of the Iranian Fateh with an alleged range of 400 kilometers [about 250 miles], would enable the Houthis to target shipping in the Red Sea as well as parts of the Gulf of Aden," he wrote.

However, it remains unclear to which extent the missiles are operational, Hinz added. 

In addition, a China-brokered deal to improve ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023 included the stop of supply of arms to the Houthis. 

"It is not known whether any of the additions to the Houthi arsenal were delivered after the conclusion of the Saudi–Iranian detente in March 2023," Hinz said.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.