The Houthi Red Sea Drone and Missile Strike: Rhetoric, Reality, and Regional Escalation

October 25, 2023

Anthony Chimente & Ali Mahmood

USS Carney (DDG-64) transits the Suez Canal, Oct. 18, 2023. US Navy Photo

On October 7th, Hamas militants launched one of the most unprecedented incursions in Palestinian history, with a barrage of nearly 3,000 rockets and close to 2,5000 militants into Israel from the Gaza Strip. While still a single-front battle, the ground situation is fluid, and the fear of escalating into a regional war is very real. The Iranian-backed Axis of Resistance is one fundamental element to consider. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has a strong potential to draw in regional, non-state actors, including the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. To be sure, On October 19th, the Pentagon confirmed the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer, successfully intercepted three cruise missiles and a handful of drones launched by the Houthis while operating in the Red Sea.

Indeed, the Iranian-backed Houthis have taken a more strident stance towards the recent Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. The Houthis have convened multiple rallies chanting their hallmark slogan of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse Upon the Jews.” Houthi founder Hussein Al-Houthi coined the chant as a battle cry and flag to rally around for Houthi supporters. Additionally, the Houthis initiated a fundraising campaign for the Hamas militants, forcing inhabitants within Houthi-controlled areas to pay a levy. Moreover, the Houthi defense minister of information stated that Sana is willing to send thousands of fighters and the weaponry required to attack Israel.

The Houthis have clearly stated the intention to join a Hamas counteroffensive if the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launch an incursion into the Gaza Strip and continue the air campaign. Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, head of the Iranian-backed militia, threatened on October 10 to launch missiles and drones against Israel. '’If the Americans directly intervened militarily, we would be ready to participate, with missile and drone strikes and other military options,' added the group leader. The Houthi prime minister confirmed following a meeting on October 21st with Palestinian militia officials that Israeli ships operating in the Red Sea will be targeted if Israel launches an incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Rhetoric vs Reality

The Houthi threat to launch missiles or drone strikes at Israel or other unfriendly targets is not a newfound development, as the group has issued similar rhetoric in the past. For example, in 2020, a Houthi official said that missiles targeting Saudi Arabian oil facilities could also be used against Israel. Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, Houthi spokesman and politburo member, declared on X that now is the “opportune moment for the axis of resistance represented by Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, to participate in the decisive battle against the occupying Zionist entity in support of our Palestinian brothers.”

With missiles capable of hitting targets up to 2,500 km away, the Houthi salvo against Israel is a question of will, not capability; if the group chooses to do so, it can. Last year, Houthi-affiliated Brigadier General Abdallah al-Jaifri implied this capability in a statement that “the very same missiles and drones that have reached the UAE today will reach Tel Aviv and the Eilat Port. There are also other missiles and drones with a longer range — a range of 2,500 km — and can go beyond the Zionist entity.” On the Telegraph, the Houthis posted Quds 3 and Quds 4 missiles in a parade with messages in Hebrew stating, “your days are numbered” and “your army will be destroyed.” While the Pentagon remained unsure whether the volley of three missiles and 15 drones fired by the Iranian proxy intentionally targeted Israel, the Pentagon confirmed a “heading north along the Red Sea potentially towards targets in Israel.” On October 22nd, Houthi officials affirmed the salvo intended to strike Israel and confirmed the launch to signify “a form of solidarity with the people of Gaza.”


Beyond this, there is little doubt the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) ordered the attack in a bid by Tehran to signal to the region that the IRGC would try and prevent the IDF from operating within Gaza. Earlier this month, a high-ranking official in the Southern Transitional Council security services relayed to the American Center for Yemeni Studies that Iranian, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi experts in missiles and drones visited Houthi outposts at the border strip between South Yemen and the Houthi-held territory in North Yemen. "We have information to confirm that two Iranian experts visited multiple areas under the Houthi militia control between the provinces of Lahj and Taiz," added the official.

He went on to convey Iranian experts recently visited areas close to the western coast of Yemen including the areas of Jabal Jalis in Al Qabbaytah, Northwest of Karish northern Lahj province, and also visited sites located in Jabal Al Jah and Jabal Arriyah, between Arrahidah, Hifan Jabal Al Quba’ in Hifan, Mafraq Mawiyah all located in Taiz province southeast Yemen. Moreover, the attacks occurred a few days following a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Amirabdollahian, who indicated that “preemptive action” from the Axis of Resistance was imminent and Israel would face multiple fronts if a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip manifested and American forces became involved.


Drivers and Implications

There are many reasons behind the Houthis decision to launch a missile and drone salvo at Israel, although the attack was largely symbolic in nature. One is based on Iranian direction and the desire for regional prestige amongst the other members of the Axis of Resistance by demonstrating a willingness to engage in regional conflicts. Thus, the Houthis are solidifying themselves as partners in the Axis of Resistance. There is also an apparent attempt at messaging or signaling to Israel and the US that the Houthis can strike both countries' interests in the region. The Houthis are lashing out at the proper setting to embolden their anti-American and Israeli sentiment, in contrast to a somewhat constrained approach to criticizing Israel and America in the past.

The campaign for Palestinian statehood has long been a cause célèbre in the Muslim world and plays into public opinion. Gulf Arabs feel that their governments should stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and halt all forms of cooperation with Israel. While the Houthis possess the necessary manpower and weaponry to assist Hamas if the IDF launches a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, rhetoric is debatable compared to kinetic military action. Thus, the Houthis are attempting to garner more influence and stature by attempting to attack Israel and aligning with the Palestinian cause. Houthi leadership affirmed the desire to defend Palestine, and a top official claimed to be in close cooperation and coordination “with our brothers [Hamas] in the Axis of Resistance.” The strike, in coordination with those emanating from other Axis of Resistance partners, demonstrates an Iranian capability to engage in regional conflict while diffusing any blame to proxy elements.

The attack coincides with ongoing peace negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. It remains unclear as to what the implications will be, but the Houthis have sent a strong message and could use the attack as leverage in talks with Saudi Arabia. Another point of contention is how militarily effective Houthi drone and missile salvos would be against Israeli or American targets. The Israeli Iron missile and air defense system has taken down a large portion of missiles and rockets launched by Hamas and Hezbollah in the past. To be sure, the IDF spokesman reaffirmed the Israeli capacity to thwart any Houthi-instigated missile or drone strikes “at a rate that has not been seen for decades.”

Therefore, Houthi missiles and drones are likely to be intercepted before successfully targeting American or Israeli interests in the region, given the sophistication of the Iron Dome system and the capability of American warships in nearby waters, part of a regional air and missile defense architecture.  As part of this architecture, American forces, and the International Community are likely to strengthen security and military ties with the Yemeni government along with the Joint Forces of Brigadier General Tariq Saleh stationed on Western Yemeni territory adjacent to the Red Sea. It remains to be seen if the Houthis will launch further salvos against American and Israeli targets at sea and on land if the IDF invades the Gaza Strip. There is also the question of whether or not the attack was political messaging or a glimpse of the Houthi militia's sustained role and involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.