Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Wednesday that they shot down a US MQ-9 Reaper drone flying over the country’s territorial waters.
The move by the group, which is linked to Iran and controls vast swaths of Yemen, comes as Israel continues to bomb the Gaza Strip, killing more than 10,500 Palestinians.
There have also been previous attacks by the Houthis against Israel, firing missiles and drones. Specifically, the Houthis have launched three rounds of attacks on Israel since October 7. Indeed, about a week ago the group effectively declared war on Israel, pledging more attacks to follow, raising fears of an escalation of the war at the regional level. .
Who are the Houthis?
An Iranian-backed rebel group that has seized most of Yemen in a decade-long civil war against a Saudi-led coalition. In recent months, peace talks have advanced, but the deal has not been finalized.
Why did they get into the conflict?
Tehran, the main patron of the Houthis, advances its goals through the armed groups it supports and finances. Among these groups are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which operate in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon, and extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. In this way, Iran benefits from the action of the groups it supports without being directly involved in the conflicts.
Of course, although Iran may be lending a “hand”, comments Iran expert Gregory Brew, of the Eurasia Group, in the end “the Houthis are doing it because the Houthis simply want it”.
“Entering the war illuminates their bona fides as part of the wider Iranian-led anti-Israel axis, while potentially underscoring to the Saudis the urgency of reaching a peace deal in Yemen before a wider regional war erupts around Gaza,” he adds. .
Can they really hurt Israel?
The Houthis released footage of the attacks they launched against Israel. The videos show them using a variant of the Zolfaghar medium-range ballistic missile, the Quds cruise missile and the Samad drone, according to Al Jazeera.
All are based on corresponding Iranian models, which are known by different names. There is no reliable information on exactly which variants were used or what their actual range is, but some of the Houthi missiles may theoretically have the ability to reach Israel.
What we do know, however, is that they did not use the alleged advanced ballistic missile, known as the Toofan. They introduced him recently and he has a longer range.
They also have so-called kamikaze drones, including one believed to be based on Iran’s Shahed 136 drone, believed to have been used extensively by Russia in the war in Ukraine.
“It therefore appears that the Houthis have yet to fully utilize their diverse arsenal of missiles,” comments Al Jazeera. Speaking to the agency, Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, estimated that it is unlikely that the Houthis will fully participate in this war, mainly because they are about 2,000 kilometers from Israel.
He said if the conflict escalates into a regional war and Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups enter the war fully, then the Houthis will likely continue to fire missiles and drones at Israel. But then the situation could be different.
“If the Houthis attack Israel with drones and missiles on their own, Israeli air defenses can probably intercept them. If, however, the Houthis join several other Iranian-backed groups—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, possibly various militias in Syria—to attack Israel simultaneously, then there is a greater chance that they will overwhelm Israeli air defenses. Such a multi-front war is the nightmare scenario for Israel.”
Brue agrees, noting that although the Houthis are well-armed with cruise missiles and drones, they lack the accuracy to inflict sustained damage on Israel, especially given the presence of US and Israeli missile defense systems in the region.
However, the Houthis can certainly threaten or harass vessel traffic through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz, two of the world’s most critical trade and energy routes.
And that combination of high firepower and low accuracy may be the biggest danger, he warns. “If one of these missiles gets through and does serious damage, then you can be sure that the conflict will escalate quickly.”
Is this the “new front” Iran warned about?
As Israel continues to pound Gaza, Iran has repeatedly warned that if it does not stop, “new fronts” in the war could be opened by the “axis of resistance” – a network of political and armed groups aligned with Iran against Israel.
The entry of the Houthis into war with Hamas could cause concern for Israel, which already faces a firefight with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Skirmishes between the two have gradually intensified, and Hezbollah is gradually tapping into its secret arsenal as the two sides push ever deeper into each other’s territory.
However, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stopped short of declaring war on Israel in a speech last week, but noted that it remains a real possibility, depending on what Israel and its Western allies do next.