Houthi missile arsenal holds key to peace
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.