Houthi mis­sile arse­nal holds key to peace

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

AUN peace plan for Yemen seeks to de­prive the coun­try’s armed Houthi move­ment of its mis­sile arse­nal which Ye­meni se­cu­rity sources say in­cludes scores and maybe even hun­dreds of Sovi­etera bal­lis­tic mis­siles pointed at Saudi Ara­bia. But whether the Iran-al­lied group will aban­don the mis­siles hid­den in moun­tain­ous ravines which have given them re­gional clout de­spite 20 months of pun­ish­ing war is an open ques­tion.

The group pos­sesses Scud mis­siles, shorter-range Tochka and anti-ship mis­siles, and un­guided Grad and Katyusha rock­ets, the se­cu­rity sources told Reuters. It has even man­u­fac­tured smaller home-made rock­ets with names like “Vol­cano” and “Stead­fast”. Re­tain­ing them could for­tify the Houthis in a per­ma­nently armed en­clave like fel­low Iran-al­lied groups Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah - deep­en­ing the re­gional power strug­gle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran and un­nerv­ing key ship­ping lanes such as the Gulf of Aden through which most of the world’s oil is trans­ported.

West­ern and re­gional pow­ers have long wor­ried that com­plex in­ter­nal ri­val­ries and an ac­tive Al-Qaeda branch could push Yemen to­ward chaos - fears which largely ma­te­ri­al­ized last year. A Saudi-led mil­i­tary coali­tion has staged thou­sands of air strikes on the Houthis since the group top­pled the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and fanned out across the coun­try in March 2015. While Iran has strongly de­nied aid­ing the Houthis, Saudi con­cerns that the Houthis are the prox­ies of their re­gional arch-ri­val sparked their in­ter­ven­tion.

Fate of Plan in Doubt

The con­flict has now killed 10,000 peo­ple while hunger and disease stalk the coun­try which even be­fore the war was awash with guns and plagued by poverty. But the Houthis may feel ced­ing Yemen’s most pow­er­ful weapons to neu­tral of­fi­cers and be­com­ing a po­lit­i­cal party as en­vi­sioned by the UN plan may leave them vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack. “When the Houthis seized (the cap­i­tal) Sanaa, they as­sumed to­tal con­trol of state in­sti­tu­tions, key posts in the army and all the mis­siles,” a se­nior Ye­meni se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said, speak­ing to Reuters on con­di­tion of anonymity. “Relin­quish­ing the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus will be the most im­por­tant step to­ward what the coun­try needs most - putting the state back to­gether,” the of­fi­cial added.

A 48-hour cease­fire aimed at paving the way for peace talks and a unity govern­ment ex­pired on Mon­day, the lat­est in a se­ries of failed truces which leave the fate of the UN plan in doubt. Saudi-led bombings have re­peat­edly struck un­der­ground mis­sile si­los, send­ing mush­room clouds ex­plod­ing over Sanaa. Early in the war, the coali­tion said it had de­stroyed 80 per­cent of the coun­try’s stock­pile of 300 bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

Yet the Houthis have man­aged to launch dozens of them at pro-govern­ment forces in­side Yemen and at Saudi Ara­bia through­out the war, in­clud­ing just out­side the holy city of Makkah some 600 km north of the coun­try. While Scuds are no­to­ri­ously in­ac­cu­rate and most ap­pear to have been shot down by Saudi Pa­triot mis­siles ac­quired from the United States, the pro­jec­tiles have un­nerved Gulf Arab states.

Seized from Army Stores

Seized by the Houthis from army stores af­ter their takeover, Yemen’s mis­siles were amassed over the course of decades in le­gal ac­qui­si­tions from the Soviet Union and North Korea. The Houthis have up­graded some mis­siles to max­i­mize their range, and their tech­ni­cal savvy in lo­cal man­u­fac­ture of smaller rock­ets and sev­eral deadly launches may sug­gest for­eign help, mil­i­tary an­a­lysts say. A Tochka bal­lis­tic mis­sile at­tack last Septem­ber killed more than 60 Emi­rati, Saudi and Bahraini troops out­side the cen­tral city of Marib and an­other killed the Saudi in­tel­li­gence chief for Yemen and a se­nior Emi­rati of­fi­cer in the south­west. Speak­ing to Reuters, an anti-Houthi tribal com­man­der said his scouts spot­ted what they said were mem­bers of the Ira­nian-backed Le­banese armed group Hezbol­lah aid­ing the Marib strike. “My men re­ported spot­ting the mis­sile launcher ac­com­pa­nied by sev­eral cars car­ry­ing Hezbol­lah advisers - we re­ferred the in­for­ma­tion to the coali­tion but we got no re­sponse,” the com­man­der said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The spokesman for the Saudi-led coali­tion, Bri­gadier Gen­eral Ahmed Asseri, said it lacked ev­i­dence of a Hezbol­lah link to those at­tacks but be­lieved the Houthis re­ceive their help. “We have in­for­ma­tion that there are Le­banese work­ing with the (Houthi) mili­tias be­long­ing to Hezbol­lah ... We know they are there, we know they help them re­new and main­tain the mis­siles,” Asseri told Reuters. Ye­meni, West­ern and Ira­nian of­fi­cials told Reuters that Iran has stepped up trans­fers of mis­siles and other weapons to the group in re­cent months. Bri­gadier Gen­eral Sharaf Luq­man, a spokesman for Yemen’s proHouthi mil­i­tary, de­nied in a state­ment this month that their forces had ever re­ceived Ira­nian aid. Iran and Hezbol­lah have also strongly de­nied aid­ing them.

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