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How Houthi attacks affect both the Israel-Hamas conflict and Yemen’s own civil war – and could put pressure on US, Saudi Arabia

How Houthi attacks affect both the Israel-Hamas conflict and Yemen's own civil war – and could put pressure on US, Saudi Arabia
A poster of rebel leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi is held aloft during anti-Israel protests in Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Yemen’s Houthi movement launched missiles and drones at Israel on Oct. 31, 2023 – provoking fears of a dangerous escalation of the Middle East conflict.

With the militia – which controls part of the Arabian Peninsula state – vowing further attacks, Israel countered by sending missile boats to the Red Sea. They join U.S. warships already deployed in the area.

The Conversation U.S. turned to Mahad Darar, a Yemeni politics expert at Colorado State University, to explain what is behind the Houthis’ involvement in the war – and how it could risk not only widening the conflict but reigniting hostilities in Yemen itself.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthi group, also known as Ansar Allah, is an armed militia of the Zaydi Shia sect in Yemen. They ousted Yemen’s transitional government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a 2014 coup and have since been engaged in a bloody civil war with the ousted administration, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. A truce has stemmed fighting in the country, with the Houthis currently in control of most of northern Yemen.

Why did the Houthis attack Israel?

In the first analysis, one can argue that the Houthis are part of a broader regional alliance with Iran. As such, the attack on Israel can be seen as showcasing both the Houthis’ – and Iran’s – military capabilities to both local and regional audiences. Indeed, some analysts argue that the reason Tehran supplied the Houthis with long-range missiles was so it could pose a threat to both Israel and also Tehran’s rival in the region: Saudi Arabia.

However, although it may seem that the Houthis are acting as an Iranian proxy, the main reason the militia launched the attack could be to gain domestic support. Houthi leadership may be trying to present the group as the dominant force in Yemen willing to challenge Israel – a country that is generally unpopular in the Arab world.

This approach helps the Houthis outmaneuver local rivals and unite the Yemeni public behind the cause of Palestinian liberation. It also allows the militia to carve out a unique stance in the region, setting them apart from Arab governments that have so far been unwilling to take strong action against Israel – such as severing ties in the case of more Israel-friendly states, such as United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others.

In particular, the Houthis will want to present a different face to the Arab world than Saudi Arabia, which had been looking to normalize ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia, it should be added, is the main backer of the internationally recognized Yemeni government – one of the Houthis’ main opponents in the civil war.

It is also important to note that there appears to be growing popular discontent in Arab countries over the perceived weak stance of their governments toward Israel. But due to the authoritarian nature of many of these regimes, public opinion has little influence on policy.

This does not, of course, change the fact that the Houthis themselves run a theocratic regime with no democratic values.

Plus, launching a missile or a couple of drones is relatively cheap for the Houthis, especially considering the benefits they might gain from the action.

How could the Houthi attack affect the Israel-Hamas conflict?

Some analysts have suggested that an attack by the Houthis heightens the chances of overwhelming Israel’s defense systems, if it forms part of a
coordinated effort involving
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But this idea falls short for two reasons:

First, the Houthis likely have fewer ballistic missiles than Hezbollah and Hamas and realistically stand little chance of inflicting much damage on Israel. Moreover, they will be mindful of keeping these missiles for their own use in the ongoing civil war in Yemen – which poses a more immediate threat to the group than Israel does.

The threat from the Houthis toward Israel is far smaller than both Hezbollah and Hamas, whose fighters can cross a land border to enter Israel.

Second, the imprecision of the Houthi missiles means that any attack also poses a risk to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as these projectiles could land in their territories and cause damage. In fact, drones reportedly launched by the Houthis have already caused explosions after erroneously crashing in Egypt.

Could the Houthi attack affect US thinking on the conflict?

There is a scenario in which the Houthi attacks may benefit Israel. The strike plays into a narrative that Israel is facing a multi-front war sponsored by Iran, potentially escalating tensions between Iran and both Israel and the United States.

And this could bolster the arguments of hawks within the U.S. foreign policy establishment who are pushing the U.S. toward a more confrontational stance against Iran.

On the flip side, any perceived threat from the Houthis gives Iran more of a negotiation card in the wider context of regional disputes such as over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran will be keen to position itself as a country with an array of proxies, capable of wreaking havoc in the region should it wish.

Could the attack be Iran’s bidding?

Houthi actions primarily serve their own interests rather than those of Iran.

And unlike Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria – which have recently attacked U.S. troops – the Houthis have not targeted U.S. forces in the region. If the Houthis were truly in the same basket as other Iranian proxies, I believe they would have targeted the nearest U.S. stationed base, which is Djibouti.

But Houthi leadership will be mindful that such an attack would not only be unpopular among the Yemeni population but also would potentially come at a high cost to themselves.

Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, which are focused on resisting Israeli occupation, the Houthis are primarily concerned with local issues within Yemen. Historically, member of the Zaydi Shia sect have managed Yemen’s issues without foreign support, going back hundreds of years before they were overthrown in 1962.

That said, the Houthis haven’t shied away from appearing aligned with Iran of late, mainly because they rely heavily on Iranian supplies of weapons.

What could this mean for the Yemen civil war?

Negotiations between Houthis, Saudis and the Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government forces are at a delicate point.

Recently, it was reported that the Houthis killed four Saudi soldiers just days after Saudi Arabia shot down a missile from the Houthis that was headed for Israel.

In the latest Houthi attack, the missiles passed through Saudi territory uninterrupted before being shot down by Israel. It is unclear whether this is an indication that the Saudis heeded the Houthis’ warning, which is potentially why they didn’t shoot down the latest missiles. To know more about the true state of Saudi-Houthi negotiations, there needs to be greater evidence, such as increased clashes between the Saudis and Houthis, or even a direct attack by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia.

But if Houthi missile attacks escalate in the coming days, it could put Saudi Arabia in a difficult spot. At that point, the Saudis would face a difficult choice. They could allow the Houthis’ missiles to continue passing through their land or they could try to shoot them down. But that would risk jeopardizing diplomatic efforts with both the Houthis and Iran. And that, I feel, seems very unlikely.

The Conversation

Mahad Darar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.