Will the Yemen war transform into a regional military confrontation?

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 29 Jan 2022

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced on Monday that they had thwarted a double missile attack launched by the Houthi militia in Yemen.

People inspect the rubble of a prison facility hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that killed at least 87 people, in a stronghold of Houthi rebels on the border with Saudi Arabia, in the northern Saada province of Yemen, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. AP

The UAE defence ministry said that Emirati forces launched a counter offensive by F-16 fighters against the platform from where the missiles were launched in Al-Jawf governorate, northern Yemen.

At the same time, the UAE confirmed that it did not sustain any losses from the Houthi missile attack. The Saudi statement said that some workshops in an industrial area in Al-Dhahran suffered material damage.

On the other hand, the Houthi militia announced that Operation Yemen Hurricane II targeted Saudi and Emirati territory and that the attack used drones and missiles. They added that the targets included the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, the Emirate of Dubai, and other unspecified vital sites. Other reports say that the UAE Al-Dhafra military airbase was among the targets.

This context reflects that both warring parties in Yemen (the coalition and the Houthi militia) are determined to evolve the rules of engagement. It is believed that the militia is betting the UAE will withdraw from the counter offensive against the Houthis and will instead consolidate the role of the Giants Brigades and will aid them in their attempts to regain areas occupied by the Houthi militia. However, the UAE’s counterattacks are a clear message that it will not back down.

These attacks reveal the Emirati readiness to face the Houthi military escalation, for the UAE managed to repel the last attacks, which was not the case in the first strike.

It also asserted its readiness to launch a second attack, which reflects that the Emirati air defence systems are operating and actively engaged, in the light of UAE’s realisation that there is a cost to the Houthi escalation that must be faced.

The Houthi twin attacks on the UAE included Abu-Dhabi and Dubai – assuming the Houthi statement is truthful – which means that the militia will increase the rate of its attacks on the UAE compared to its attacks on Saudi Arabia. Thus, it will launch new operations solely against the UAE, which the militia described in its statement as “the enemy.”

The Houthi militia is diversifying its range of targets, stretching from military objectives, such as Al-Dhafra military airbase, to other vital commercial and touristic sites in Dubai, where the Houthis say they are targeting investment sites.

This was evident in the first strike targets, which proved that vital installations can be reached, such as Abu-Dhabi Airport and Al-Masfah commercial site. It follows that it will target sites with the same civilian and military characteristics in Saudi Arabia, where it has already reached an industrial zone.

The Houthi strikes’ intensity and timing indicate that the militia still has enough of a military stockpile to escalate further. Moreover, the precision in targeting, even in intercepting some attacks, confirms that the militia is capable of expanding the range of targets. As a matter of fact, the Houthi militia cannot perform this action single-handedly, i.e. to aim at precise coordinates to this extent. The launched missiles, Quds-II and Zulfiqar, were developed in Iran recently.

This confirms that Iran has managed to transfer this technology to Yemen without being intercepted by international and regional parties monitoring smuggling routes from Iran to Yemen. 

On the other hand, US President Joe Biden announced that he is studying the re-inclusion of the Houthi militia on the black list, following its first attacks on Abu-Dhabi, amid pressure from the Republicans in Congress.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking went on a tour in the region last week where he called on all parties to reduce armed escalation and return to the negotiating table, although none of the parties headed this call.

This demonstrates the failure of the US administration to push the political option, which is viewed by the Arabian Gulf officials as both unproductive and unpersuasive, and that currently the main option is the military one.

The US has also failed in its attempt to link the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (5+1) concerning the nuclear deal with Iran and Iran’s backing down from its regional expansion policy.

Washington announced this week that the progress is linked to the release of American citizens detained in Iran, which has further shaken confidence between the US and its Middle East allies.

In contrast to this US standpoint, Israel is raising its presence in the regional developments formula in general. Israeli reports revealed Tel Aviv’s readiness to supply Abu Dhabi with possible air defence reinforcements. This was confirmed by Itzik Huber, CEO of Skylock System, in an interview last week with Yedioth Ahronoth, saying that communications were made with Abu Dhabi after the incident.

The UAE asked for what Israel can provide as soon as possible from a long list of air defence systems. He revealed that his company supplied the UAE months ago with systems capable of detecting hostile drones from a distance of more than 20km. However, it seems that the UAE needs additional reinforcements. On the domestic level, Israel conducted manoeuvres simulating Iranian attacks on its nuclear sites as well as launching a military operation against Iran.   

The formula of escalation is still confined to the Yemeni crisis, but it is believed that if the escalation continues on this scale, the engagement formula will witness another qualitative leap with the entry of regional powers into the arena. This in turn will move the formula from a war in the Gulf into a wide-scale regional war.

Prominent Saudi writer Abdulrahman Al-Rashed recently wrote two articles in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper where he said that Saudi Arabia is preparing for a direct war with Iran, not with its proxies, that the UAE will not back down from continuing to escalate, and that Israel is undergoing a process of preparedness.

So, the question here is, to what extend will the US support its allies in the region in this regard considering that Washington is reducing its military presence in the Middle East.

Despite the military escalation in the Gulf, the US has not sent even one additional aircraft carrier to the region and is still manoeuvring in the nuclear negotiations and seeks to gain time in spite of the extreme pressures exerted by Iran on the US in the negotiations path. It seems that the US is preoccupied domestically with the midterm Congressional elections.

So, the issue will depend on the regional willingness to engage in war. It should be taken into account that there are large powers showing greater interest in the region, namely China and Russia, which are currently conducting a naval manoeuvre near Iran in the Indian Ocean.

Iran is currently using proxies to drain regional powers. So, will the regional powers launch the first strike against Iran? So far, the regional powers have been confronting Iranian proxies, especially the Houthi proxy in Yemen, while other proxies are embroiled in political tension in Iraq and Lebanon following the Iraqi elections and the forming of the Lebanese government. Will the regional powers also expand the range of targets against Iranian proxies? For example, will Israel expand its strikes against moving targets in Syria and will the Arab alliance increase its strikes on Al-Hudaydah?

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