TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Strikes Back in Yemen
October 13, 2016

The U.S. Strikes Back in Yemen

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Recent Houthi rebel attacks on U.S. and allied warships operating in a key passageway for global commerce resulted in the first direct U.S. military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

• The Houthis—who receive Iranian arms and funding—represent an increasingly significant instrument of Iran’s regional strategy.

• To counter Saudi Arabia, Iran is supplying the Houthis with capabilities similar to those it provides to its most important regional ally, Lebanese Hizballah.

• The Houthi attacks on warships indicate that U.S. and Gulf state efforts to block arms shipments to the Houthis have had limited effectiveness.

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On several occasions in early October, the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired anti-ship cruise missiles at naval ships operating in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a strategic chokepoint through which about 10% of the world’s seaborne-traded oil flows daily. On October 1, the Houthis claimed responsibility for severely damaging a U.S.-furnished supply ship of the United Arab Emirates navy, injuring several of its crewmen. The UN Security Council immediately condemned the attack. On October 9, missiles were fired at a U.S. Navy vessel in the same area, but all fell short. Several missiles were fired at a U.S. Navy vessel again on October 12, again missing their target. The second attack prompted retaliatory ‘self-defense strikes’ by the U.S. Navy against suspected Houthi targets, which were reportedly authorized by President Obama. The U.S. retaliatory strikes targeted Houthi land-based radar installations that had been captured by the rebels, which helped them acquire the U.S. targets. 

While officials stressed the limited nature of the U.S. retaliation, the strikes against the Houthis represent a significant expansion of U.S. involvement in Yemen. Prior to the strikes, the U.S. role in Yemen had been limited to providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition; to preventing the Houthis from receiving seaborne arms shipments; and to counterterrorism operations by U.S. Special Operations Forces against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as a small Islamic State faction, both of which control small amounts of territory in Yemen.

The Houthi missile attacks at U.S. and allied ships suggest that U.S. and Gulf state efforts to prevent Iran from arming the Houthis have not fully succeeded. To date, U.S. vessels have intercepted four Iranian shipments bound for the Houthis, yet Iran has apparently been able to circumvent the blockade and supply its ally with significant quantities of sophisticated weaponry. The anti-ship missiles fired by the Houthis are believed to be Chinese-made C-802 sea-skimming cruise missiles (70 mile range) that Iran is known to possess and has previously provided to Hizballah. Hizballah severely damaged an Israeli ship with that weapon in its 2006 conflict with Israel. Iran has also supplied the Houthis with short-range ‘Zilzal’ (Earthquake) ballistic missiles—which the rebels have fired into Saudi Arabia—as well as anti-tank weapons, AK-47 automatic rifles, and other weaponry. 

The Houthi attacks on U.S. and UAE ships suggest that Iran intends for the Houthis to undertake a broader regional role as an Iranian proxy. In the early stages of Yemen’s latest civil conflict, Iran generally limited its involvement, instead husbanding its resources to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran’s funding for the Houthis and its provision of advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) were modest. Even with that relatively small investment, the Houthis proved useful to Iranian interests by ousting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and capturing Yemen’s capital Sana’a, as well as by pressuring Saudi Arabia militarily with cross-border and ballistic missile attacks. The conflict also brought a spotlight on Saudi military actions in Yemen that furthered the substantial humanitarian crisis in the country.  Since a break in Iran-Saudi relations in January 2016, Iran has increasingly viewed the Houthis as a versatile instrument in its regional struggle with Saudi Arabia. International criticism of Saudi tactics in Yemen has widened a U.S.-Saudi schism that began over Saudi opposition to the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran. Currently, it appears Iran may believe that unleashing the Houthis to attack warships off Yemen’s coast could cause the U.S. to pressure Saudi Arabia to halt its military action in Yemen, and thereby acquiesce to a significant share of power for the Houthis. However, if that is Tehran’s goal, the missile attacks against U.S. ships run the risk of causing the exact opposite result—an increase in U.S. direct military support for the Saudi-led coalition.  

The Houthi anti-ship missile attacks also demonstrate Tehran’s growing ability to project power in the region. In conjunction with IRGC Navy high speed intercepts of U.S. warships over the summer, Iran has reiterated threats to close off the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s largest oil chokepoint. The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea—the other coast of the Arabian Peninsula—show that Iran’s Yemeni proxy is now able to put another major oil chokepoint under threat. Arming the Houthis with anti-ship cruise and short-range ballistic missiles also suggests that Iran increasingly views the Houthis as playing a similar role against Saudi Arabia as its main ally, Hizballah, plays against Israel—Iran’s other main regional adversary. Even if a settlement is reached that restores the Hadi government, Iran may still seek to build the Houthis into a Hizballah-like ‘state within a state’ that can exert leverage against Saudi Arabia on behalf of Tehran.

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