Israel last week made history when its Arrow air defense system intercepted a missile aimed at Israel – in space. While this first Arab-Israeli battle in space caught the imagination of many news outlets, the identity of the force responsible for launching the missile was equally notable.
The Yemeni Houthis, known also as the Ansar Allah movement since 2012, immediately claimed responsibility for the launch. This was the fourth attack by the organization on Israel since October 7.
For many Israelis, the involvement of this distant organization in the current war effort against Israel is one of the most mysterious, even outlandish, aspects of the current moment. No one is entirely surprised by the desire of Lebanese Hezbollah to try to tie down Israeli forces in the North as part of an effort to relieve the pressure on its Gaza ally.
But the Houthis? What can they possibly be looking for? And no less interestingly, how did a Yemeni insurgent movement acquire the capacity to launch a stream of drones and missiles, including long-range ballistic missiles, at Israel?
What do the Houthis want?
Answering this question requires understanding a little more about the Ansar Allah/Houthis movement itself, and also regarding its relations with its patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Houthis are a north Yemen Arab tribe, originating in Saada province in northwest Yemen. Along with around 35% of the Yemeni population, they are adherents to a stream of Shi’ite Islam known as Zaidiya, which differs significantly from the more familiar Twelver stream followed by Iranian and most Arab Shi’ite Muslims.
The political movement bearing their name was established by tribal leader Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi in the 1990s. Then in 2004, it turned to insurgent activities against the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, also a Zaidi Shi’ite Muslim, was a military officer who seized power in 1978 and presided over the reunification of Yemen in 1990. His regime was backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, meanwhile, were from the outset supported by Iran. In 2004, Hussein al-Houthi was killed by Saleh’s forces. The leadership of the movement and its insurgency then passed to Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, Hussein’s brother, who continues to lead it today.
THIS BACKGROUND is important because it is noteworthy that Ansar Allah resembles Hamas and differs from the Lebanese or Iraqi Hezbollah movements in that it is a client of Tehran but not entirely a proxy of it. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the other militias that resemble them, such as Badr in Iraq, are direct franchises of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Tehran established them and stewarded them in their formative period. They are directly supportive of the Iranian form of government and would have little basis for their existence without Iranian financial and other support.
Hamas, by contrast, is a movement with genuine roots in the local Palestinian Sunni context. Ansar Allah/Houthis, similarly, emerged from an authentic local context and have ideological and religious roots distinct from the IRGC’s various franchise groups. For this reason, it was for a time common to hear analysis that depicted emphasis on Ansar Allah’s links to Tehran as overly formulaic.
Such criticism, however, tended to overlook the fact that (again similarly to Hamas), Ansar Allah’s military capacities derive not from its local status, but entirely from its alliance with Tehran.
As a result of Iranian arms and training, Ansar Allah was able to leverage the period of internal unrest in Yemen in 2011, first participating in the unrest and demonstrations that brought down the Saleh regime, then from 2014 joining forces with the deposed Saleh, and seizing control of the capital city, Sanaa, and much of north and west Yemen.
The Houthis turned on Saleh in 2017 and executed him. The Saudi intervention of 2015 failed to reconquer areas lost to Ansar Allah but prevented the disaster of an Iran-backed militia seizing control of the Bab al-Mandeb, a strategic choke point between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Yemen remains divided between the Iranian-backed Houthis/Ansar Allah, the Saudi-backed official government of Yemen, and the UAE-supported separatists of the Southern Transitional Council.
Iran officially denies arming the Houthis, but such denials are no longer taken seriously. The weight of evidence is formidable, showing that Tehran has been in recent years supplying by sea routes the small arms, missiles, and rockets that have enabled the organization to transform itself from a rag-tag militia into a force that can strike at Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Tim Lenderking, UN Special Envoy on Yemen, told Reuters in May 2023, “The Iranians have continued to smuggle weaponry and narcotics toward this conflict, and we are very concerned that this would continue, despite the benefits that would come from a Saudi-Iran deal. So I think that is a space we have to watch.”
IN RECENT years, Iran has begun to use Ansar Allah as its preferred deniable client for strategic-level strikes on its regional enemies. Until the current war, the most famous instance of this was the September 14, 2019, attack on the Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khureis.
In this sophisticated, two-wave attack, a swarm of drones and cruise missiles overcame Saudi air defenses and caused serious damage to the two facilities. Ansar Allah claimed responsibility. The sophistication and range of the attacks led to this claim being immediately dismissed by US, Saudi, and Western officials, who concluded that Iran itself was behind the strike.
Ansar Allah is of particular use to Iran for attacks of this kind for several reasons. Firstly, and obviously, Iran doesn’t want to invite retaliation on itself and is indifferent to the lives of those who crew or live under its proxies.
But the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen has additional advantages. Iran controls or maintains a military capacity in several Arab states – it is dominant in Iraq and Lebanon and has freedom of action in parts of Syria. But in all three of these areas, the Iranian proxy must take into account complex local political realities and the interests of other players – the Russians and the Assad regime in Syria, the non-Iran aligned Shi’ites, and non-Shi’ite populations with their own political connections and interests in both Lebanon and Iraq.
In Yemen, this is not the case. There, the country is divided, and in the Houthi-controlled areas, the movement maintains a monopoly of power by openly coercive means, with only the most flimsy pretense of a formal political process. And while a 2014 UN embargo against weapons transfers to the Houthis has been in place since 2014, it remains poorly enforced.
For these reasons, the Houthis have become Tehran’s preferred tool for the carrying out of strategic attacks by proxy. The use by the Houthis/Ansar Allah of ballistic missiles against Israel brings this process to its highest point yet.
The remaining question is whether, and for how long, Israel and the West will continue to indulge the obvious fiction of the Houthis’ independent advanced missile capacity. On the one hand, this is a clear absurdity. On the other hand, pointing that out would mean acknowledging that Iran has launched drone and missile attacks on Israel – i.e., carried out clear acts of war – on four occasions since October 7.
Source » jpost