Are Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis firing warning shots across Biden administration’s bows?

However, everyone knows that the Houthis, backed by Iran, are the ones who carry out such terrorist acts and use ballistic missiles and drones, says analyst Hamdan Al-Shehri. (AFP/File)
However, everyone knows that the Houthis, backed by Iran, are the ones who carry out such terrorist acts and use ballistic missiles and drones, says analyst Hamdan Al-Shehri. (AFP/File)
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Updated 29 January 2021

Are Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis firing warning shots across Biden administration’s bows?

Are Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis firing warning shots across Biden administration’s bows?
  • Militia has alternated between bragging about targeting Saudi population centers and maintaining plausible deniability
  • Apparent sighting of projectile high over Riyadh on Tuesday was the second such incident in a span of just three days

LONDON: Was the object sighted high above Riyadh on Tuesday a stray projectile with no evident target or a warning shot across the bows of the Biden administration? That was the question uppermost in the minds of defense experts and political analysts, just three days after a “hostile air target” — assumed to be a ballistic missile — heading towards the Saudi capital was intercepted and destroyed.

Social media was abuzz on Tuesday with footage of smoke hanging over Riyadh, with residents describing how the windows of their homes were rattled by the impact of at least one explosion. By late evening, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis had not crowed about a direct hit on the city of 7.68 million people. The militia’s behavior ran true to recent form: it had denied involvement in Saturday’s failed attack.

But the fact of the matter is, these could be the first significant attacks targeting a major Saudi city since the US State Department designated the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” on Jan. 19 — one of the final acts of the Donald Trump administration in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its proxies.




A flurry of attacks on US allies could be attempts by Iran to test President Biden’s resolve or, with luck, even kickstart dialogue. (AFP)

Without naming the Houthis explicitly, the Biden administration issued a statement after Saturday’s incident, condemning the undeniable targeting of civilians. “Such attacks contravene international law and undermine all efforts to promote peace and stability,” the State Department said.

To many political observers, the new Houthi approach is a complete no-brainer: Threatened with sanctions and political isolation, and desperate for potential concessions from Washington, the militia is trying to have its cake and eat it too by launching attacks on Riyadh and not claiming responsibility for them.


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“There is no doubt that after evaluating the international response and noticing that a claim of responsibility would be counterproductive — especially after being classified by the State Department as “terrorists” — the Houthis tried to deny they were behind Saturday’s attack,” Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations scholar, told Arab News.

“However, everyone knows that the Houthis, backed by Iran, are the ones who carry out such terrorist acts and use ballistic missiles and drones. They also tried to get on the new US administration’s good side by denying what happened in the Kingdom. But everyone knows who is responsible for these actions.”




Riyadh, which is roughly 850 km from the Yemeni border, was first attacked by the Houthis on Nov. 4, 2017. (Shutterstock)

According to experts, the Houthis have a strategy of swinging between bragging about targeting population centers and maintaining plausible deniability. In other words, they pick and choose whichever attitude suits their objectives, and those of their Iranian patrons, at any given time.

Put bluntly, the brazen strikes targeting Saudi Arabia’s capital may not be routine tactical operations in a low-intensity conflict but rather reflective of a larger strategic decision by Iran to put President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team on notice.

The Trump administration withdrew the US from the Obama-era nuclear accord with Iran in May 2018 and reimposed a slew of economic sanctions on the regime in Tehran. The strategy was matched by a zero-tolerance approach to Iranian influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

The US Treasury on Monday suspended some of the terrorism sanctions that the State Department had imposed on the Houthis in President Donald Trump’s waning days in office. Against this backdrop of apparent policy reviews, a flurry of attacks on Washington’s regional allies and partners could very well be attempts by Tehran to test President Biden’s resolve or, with luck, even kickstart dialogue.

“There is no doubt that Iran wants to test the new administration to know how serious it is regarding the Yemeni issue and the Iranian nuclear issue, and it wants to negotiate with more than one card,” Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“It is as though to say: ‘If you are willing to reduce the pressure on the nuclear issue, we will reduce the pressure on targeting Riyadh.’ This is nothing but cheap and shameless political blackmail, and the world knows it.”

“Cheap and shameless” is also one way to describe the Houthis’ propensity for targeting civilian population centers, often hundreds of miles inside Saudi territory.

March 26, 2018, saw one of the biggest Houthi barrages, with Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles raining down on civilian areas in four Saudi cities. Three of them targeted Riyadh, while two were aimed at Jazan and the others at Khamis Mushayt and Najran.




Civilians have been in the Houthis’ crosshairs since the very beginning of their takeover of Sana’a. (AFP/File)

Although Saudi air defenses intercepted all seven missiles, an Egyptian civilian was killed by falling debris and two others were injured. All of the attacks appear to have deliberately targeted populated areas.

“Launching indiscriminate attacks is prohibited by international humanitarian law,” Amnesty International’s Samah Hadid said at the time.

“A high death toll may have been averted, possibly due to the missiles being intercepted, but that doesn’t let the Houthi armed group off the hook for this reckless and unlawful act. These missiles cannot be precisely targeted at such distances, so their use in this manner unlawfully endangers civilians.”

Riyadh, which is roughly 850 km from the Yemeni border, was first attacked by the Houthis on Nov. 4, 2017, when an unguided ballistic missile targeted King Khalid International Airport — about 35 km northeast of the capital.

Although the missile was intercepted in flight, fragments fell inside the airport area. No one was hurt, but the result could have been catastrophic.

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“An attack with an unguided ballistic missile such as the Burkan H2 from this range is indiscriminate since these weapons are not capable of the necessary accuracy to target military objectives,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

“When deliberately or indiscriminately directed toward populated areas or civilian objects, such attacks violate the laws of war, and may amount to war crimes.”

A year earlier, in Oct. 2016, a missile, thought to have been a Burkan 1, was intercepted by Saudi air defenses just 65 km south of Makkah. The Houthis claimed at the time their intended target was Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport.

Civilians have been in the Houthis’ crosshairs since the very beginning of their takeover of Sana’a. In May 2015 there were repeated indiscriminate attacks with short-range rockets from northern Yemen into populated areas of southern Saudi Arabia, which left several civilians dead.




The Houthis are trying to have their cake and eat it too by launching attacks on Riyadh and not claiming responsibility for them. (Reuters/File)

Fighting in Yemen escalated in 2015 when the Houthis overthrew the UN-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. An Arab coalition, backed by the US, Britain and France, launched a military campaign to restore the legitimate government to power.

Since then, repeated attempts to reach a peace settlement have foundered, with the militia’s representatives failing to attend UN-brokered talks in Geneva in Sept. 2018 and its combatants willfully ignoring the terms of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements.

An April 2020 ceasefire announced by the coalition at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly fell apart when the Houthis resumed cross-border drone and missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia.

The conflict, now in its sixth year, has left 112,000 dead and 24 million in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

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Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

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UN Security Council condemns Iraq terror attack, urges all nations to help seek justice

UN Security Council condemns Iraq terror attack, urges all nations to help seek justice
Updated 12 sec ago

UN Security Council condemns Iraq terror attack, urges all nations to help seek justice

UN Security Council condemns Iraq terror attack, urges all nations to help seek justice
  • At least 11 Iraqi soldiers were shot dead in their sleep on Friday by suspected Daesh gunmen

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council has unanimously condemned “in the strongest terms” a recent terrorist attack in Iraq’s Diyala Province, and called for all “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism” to be brought to justice.
At dawn on Friday, Jan. 21, at least 11 Iraqi soldiers were shot dead in their sleep during an attack on their barracks by suspected Daesh gunmen, according to reports citing Iraqi security officials. It happened in the Al-Azim district, a mountainous area more than 70 miles north of the capital, Baghdad.
The Security Council urged all states to actively cooperate with the Iraqi Government in seeking to hold the perpetrators to account, in line with their obligations under international law and the council’s resolutions. It reiterated that terrorism is one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.
In a joint statement, council members reaffirmed that “any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”
They highlighted the need for all states “to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”
Council members also shared “their deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims and to the government of Iraq, and they wished a speedy and full recovery to those who were injured.”


Refusal of nations to repatriate children from Syria ‘beggars belief,’ says UN rights expert

Refusal of nations to repatriate children from Syria ‘beggars belief,’ says UN rights expert
Updated 25 min 10 sec ago

Refusal of nations to repatriate children from Syria ‘beggars belief,’ says UN rights expert

Refusal of nations to repatriate children from Syria ‘beggars belief,’ says UN rights expert
  • More than 700 child citizens of 57 countries, including France, Germany, the UK and the US, are detained at Al-Ghuwayran prison, which holds Daesh militants and their families
  • Fighting continues at the prison, where almost 300 detainees have been killed since a deadly jailbreak attempt by hundreds of Daesh insurgents began last week

NEW YORK: A UN human rights expert on Tuesday voiced serious concern for the well-being of more than 700 children incarcerated at Al-Ghuwayran prison, in Al-Hasakeh in northeast Syria, and called on all countries to repatriate their young citizens held in the country.
The prison was the scene of a deadly attempted jailbreak by hundreds of Daesh insurgents last week.
“Boys as young as 12 are living in fear for their lives amid the chaos and carnage in the jail,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.
“They are tragically being neglected by their own countries through no fault of their own except they were born to individuals allegedly linked or associated with designated terrorist groups.
“The treatment of hundreds of boys who have been detained in grotesque prison conditions is an affront to the dignity of the child and the right of every child to be treated with dignity.”
Almost 300 detainees have been killed during days of fighting at Al-Ghuwayran, which began last Thursday with the detonation of two car bombs. Clashes are continuing at the prison, which holds more than 5,000 alleged Daesh militants from almost 60 countries. The insurgents had seized control of the children’s section of the facility.
Fighters from the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces are said to be closing in on the final section of prison still held by Daesh attackers, as the situation becomes increasingly worrying for inmates.
Humanitarian groups have renewed calls for all governments to repatriate their citizens from Syria.
“The abject refusal of states to repatriate their children is a contributory factor in the security and human rights morass that has ignited in Al-Hasakeh in recent days,” said Ni Aolain, who last year sent official letters to 57 governments of countries believed to have citizens in Syrian camps. They include France, Germany, the UK, Finland and the US.
The failure of governments to repatriate detained children, who are victims of terrorism and in need of protection under international law, “beggars belief,” Ni Aolain said.
“Many of these boys, forcibly separated from their mothers and family members in recent years, have been denied their most fundamental human rights their entire lives,” she added.
“They have been held arbitrarily and never participated in any legal process that would justify depriving them of their liberty, and in conditions that constitute torture, cruel and degrading treatment under international law.
“Treating boys as a distinct class, refusing to recognize in practice their rights as children, is a form of gender discrimination that has had horrific consequences for these children now caught up in the violent confrontation at Al-Hasakeh prison.”
Ni Aolain called on all states and other entities active in northeastern Syria to ensure that civilians are protected, and for those involved in regaining control of the prison to protect the children held there and prevent further harm coming to them.
Special rapporteurs are independent experts who serve in individual capacities, and on a voluntary basis, on the UN’s Human Rights Council. They are not members of UN staff and are not paid for their work.


Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran

In the worst-hit province, Tehran, the PMOI said 116,735 people had lost their lives to COVID-19. (WANA/File Photo)
In the worst-hit province, Tehran, the PMOI said 116,735 people had lost their lives to COVID-19. (WANA/File Photo)
Updated 42 min 18 sec ago

Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran

In the worst-hit province, Tehran, the PMOI said 116,735 people had lost their lives to COVID-19. (WANA/File Photo)
  • People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran claim 499,800 have died in country from COVID-19
  • Official Iranian figures show 132,274 virus-related deaths, still highest in region

LONDON: An Iranian opposition group operating within and outside the Islamic republic has released figures claiming nearly half-a-million people have died from COVID-19 in the country.

According to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, more than 499,800 virus-related deaths had occurred in Iran, almost four times the latest official toll of 132,274.

In the worst-hit province, Tehran, the PMOI said 116,735 people had lost their lives to COVID-19.

Even by official figures, Iran is the worst-hit country in the Middle East, with deaths and hospitalizations far exceeding those of its neighbors. It was also the first country in the region where the virus was detected.

Official sources have reported that Iran was currently experiencing a fifth wave of COVID-19, with a rising number of cases being linked to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

On Monday, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency, the secretary of Iran’s epidemiologist committee said: “If we reimpose all the restrictions today, and if people fully abide by these regulations, the number of our patients will still reach five figures. More than 50 percent of the coronavirus cases are of omicron.”

And the spokesman for Isfahan University of Medical Sciences said: “Omicron has become the main variant in (Isfahan) province. During the past week the number of confirmed positive coronavirus cases has reached more than 1,500 cases.”

Also on Monday, ISNA reported that the dean of Kerman University of Medical Sciences said: “Expect omicron to flare up in the not-so-distant future. The number of positive coronavirus cases has increased from 30 to 50 percent. Therefore, the alarm bell has sounded.”

Iran’s COVID-19 outbreak has been blamed in some quarters on regime incompetence and Tehran prioritizing ideology over effective response.

Last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of British and American-made vaccines, significantly hindering the country’s vaccination drive and, critics have said, causing more deaths.

In August, Dr. Mohammed-Reza Zafarghandi, chairman of Iran’s non-governmental licensing and regulatory Medical Council, criticized the vaccine ban, and said: “Mortality has significantly dropped in countries where they vaccinated the population without any limits and setting (political) borders.

“Will those who said vaccine imports should be restricted be accountable today?”


Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss
Updated 50 min 4 sec ago

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss
  • Truss also held a phone call with the US secretary of state to discuss Iran nuclear talks in Vienna

LONDON: Talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Western powers and Iran are approaching a dangerous impasse, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday.
“This negotiation is urgent and progress has not been fast enough. We continue to work in close partnership with our allies but the negotiations are reaching a dangerous impasse,” Truss told parliament.
“Iran must now choose whether it wants to conclude a deal or be responsible for the collapse of the JCPOA (nuclear deal). And if the JCPOA collapses, all options are on the table.” 
Truss also held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss how to reach a successful conclusion on talks with Iran on mutual return to implementation of the nuclear deal, the US State Department said.
Her comments come a day after a senior member of the US team negotiating with Iran has left the role amid a report of differences of opinion on the way forward, as the urgency to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal intensifies.
A State Department official confirmed on Monday that Richard Nephew, US Deputy Special Envoy for Iran, is no longer on the negotiating team, but was still a State Department employee. The official did not give a reason for the change but said personnel moves were ‘very common’ a year into an administration.
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that Nephew left after differences of opinion within the US negotiating team on Iran. The paper said he had advocated a tougher posture in the current negotiations.
Iran for the first time Monday said it was open to direct nuclear negotiations with the United States, which declared itself ready to hold talks “urgently” — in a possible turning point in efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord.
Tehran has been engaged since last year in talks with the five other world powers still part of the agreement, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
After unilaterally withdrawing in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, Washington has been taking part indirectly in the Vienna negotiations, which seek to bring the United States back into the nuclear accord and ensure Iran returns to its commitments.
But Washington has said on multiple occasions it would prefer to hold direct talks, and on Monday Iran’s foreign minister said his country would consider doing so if it proved the key to a “good agreement” to salvage the floundering deal.
“If during the negotiation process we get to a point that reaching a good agreement with solid guarantees requires a level of talks with the US, we will not ignore that in our work schedule,” said Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
(With Reuters and AFP)


Egyptian, Algerian presidents hold talks in Cairo

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Egyptian, Algerian presidents hold talks in Cairo

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
  • Tebboune hails ‘complete consensus of visions, points of view’
  • El-Sisi cites agreement on Libya, water security, Palestinian state

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Tuesday expressed their agreement on the need to hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya.

During a joint press conference in Cairo, Tebboune said his talks with El-Sisi represented “a complete consensus of visions and points of view.”

El-Sisi said the talks included the issue of “water security,” adding that “our visions coincided with the need to reach a comprehensive agreement on the Renaissance Dam” in Ethiopia, which threatens to reduce Egypt’s and Sudan’s shares of Nile water.

El-Sisi said he and Tebboune also agreed on the need for foreign fighters to leave Libya “in a way that achieves security” for the country and its people.

Egypt’s president added that they held “intensive and constructive discussions that dealt with international and regional issues,” and “reflected the common will to strengthen all frameworks of cooperation between the two countries … taking into account confronting and rejecting foreign interference in the region.”

He said they also agreed on the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.

El-Sisi wished Algeria success in its presidency of the upcoming Arab Summit.