The May 14 attack on an oil pipeline deep inside Saudi Arabia could indicate a major turn in the ongoing civil war in Yemen, particularly in the tactics and equipment used by Iranian-allied Houthi rebels.
The attack, for which the Houthis claimed responsibility, appears to have involved numerous drones that flew north for hundreds of miles inside Saudi airspace before either crashing into, or launching weapons against, a key east-west pipeline, inflicting what the Saudis insist was only minor damage.
The House of Saud and its allies are seeking to restore to power Yemen’s ousted president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, or at least install a government that can be relied upon to act as a bulwark against their arch-nemesis, Tehran. So it came as no surprise when the Saudis claimed that Iran had ordered the attack.
Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-sponsored TV channel, quoted Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir as saying on May 16 that the Houthis were “an indivisible part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and are subject to the IRGC’s orders.”
Yet both Iran and the Houthis denied any involvement in the drone strikes. Reuters quoted Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the movement’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee, as saying: “We are not agents for anyone. We make decisions independently and do not take orders for drones or anything else.”
Dr. David Roberts, a Middle East expert at Kings College London, spoke with The Media Line about the incident.
“It’s not like an Iranian general sits there in a bunker in Tehran and moves his chess pieces around and [says] we’ll get the Houthis to do this attack,” he said.
“Too often, it is unproblematically asserted that the Iranians have this immensely significant relationship with the Houthis and so maybe this is an Iranian proxy action, and my point is that there is a tendril of truth to that kind of relationship,” Roberts continued. “But I want to get across the idea that there is very little evidence of genuine command and control from Iran. It is entirely unclear to me whether the Houthis take direct orders.”
The top Houthi leader also told Reuters that his group was manufacturing its own drones. But Roberts isn’t entirely convinced.
“Three or four years ago, I was far more staunch [in saying] that the Houthis are a very well-armed indigenous group. They don’t really need a huge amount of arming from Iran. But when I get new evidence, I change my mind,” he said, “and we have seen the sophistication of missiles, in particular, with farther ranges and more accuracy for example. [This] very strongly suggests that, yes, the supplies from Iran of a very bespoke kind of technology has increased.”
The Houthis have in the past used guided missiles against Saudi Arabia, weapons that most experts insist could only have come from Iran or another technologically-advanced country. Whether or not their drones are homemade, their use in the conflict could be a game-changer.
“Saudi Arabia is a huge country and it is very, very hard to prepare an effective air defense system that can detect a violation of Saudi airspace,” Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former head of the country’s National Security Council, told The Media Line.
“Drones are relatively small and fly relatively slowly, and sometimes radars that can detect the movement of ordinary jets [lack] the ability to intercept drones,” he explained. “We [in Israel] had to make a lot of adjustments to our radar systems in order to be able to identify drones…. It is not easy because the more sensitive the radars are, the more you have false alarms…. Of course, for Israel, which is a very small country, it is relatively simple… but with Saudi Arabia it’s very different.”
Leaps and bounds are being made in the field of robotic weapons. Might unmanned aerial vehicles become a mainstay of the Houthi arsenal?
“It is no doubt a growing trend,” Eiland said, “and if the Houthis understand that their drones are successful and the Saudis don’t have a good [defense] against them – and especially if [the Houthis] receive support from Iran – I believe we might see more and more attacks like this.”
The Saudi-led Sunni coalition that is fighting the Shi’ite Houthis responded to the drone attacks the next day with numerous air strikes on Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. It said the targets were all military in nature and that residents had been warned to evacuate, but several civilians, including children, were killed, and several dozens were wounded.
“The Saudis will want to vigorously respond [to drone and other attacks], of course,” Roberts told The Media Line. “[The Houthi drone strike] was a tactical attack on a relatively small [but] very important location.…[with] such profound strategic implications. That’s the thing of it, of course, that the flow of oil was stopped east to west…. Saudi Arabia for many decades has championed itself as a stable oil partner for the international economy and this is an attack on that.”
According to Roberts, “the literature says we have a ‘hurting stalemate,’ which draws the sides together and forces them to compromise. But in a grim way, [the impasse in Yemen] obviously is not hurting enough. The Houthis are proving that they are able to withstand an immense amount of pressure. It’s proving that they don’t care so much. They’ve been through terrible trials and tribulations in recent years and they’re content to continue.”
In fact, he says, it could simply be that the medium is the message.
“The Houthis are using drones in coordinated attacks 500 miles away from the border. It’s just another way that they are trying to remind everyone concerned that they have the ability to disrupt and cause pain themselves,” he said.
Eiland, however, sees clearer signs of Iran’s hand in the attack, even if only to deliver a message of its own in light of Washington’s resumption of sanctions on Tehran and the dispatch of a US aircraft carrier and B-52 strategic bombers to the region.
“For Iran it is a terrible situation,” he told The Media Line. “They prefer not to be in a full confrontation with the United States, but they’re trying to fight back and [willing to] use all their proxies in the Middle East….”
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