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The Houthis jump in

Houthi fighters gather during a military manoeuvre near Sanaa, Yemen, October 30, 2023.

Houthi fighters gather during a military manoeuvre near Sanaa, Yemen, October 30, 2023.

Houthi Media Center/Handout via REUTERS

Is the Gaza war spreading? The Houthi rebels in Yemen declared war on Israel this week, driving home the point by lobbing a number of cruise missiles 1,000 miles north toward Tel Aviv.

Who are the Houthis? An Iran-backed rebel group that has taken over most of Yemen in a decade-long civil war against a Saudi-led coalition. In recent months, peace talks have advanced, but an agreement remains elusive.

Why did they jump in? Tehran, the main patron of the Houthis, has long used regional proxies to advance its aims without getting drawn directly into conflicts. But while Iran may have given “a nudge,” says Gregory Brew, an Iran expert at Eurasia Group, “the Houthis are doing this because the Houthis want to.”

Entering the war burnishes their bona fides as part of the broader Iran-led anti-Israel axis, he says, while also potentially signaling to the Saudis the urgency of reaching a peace deal in Yemen before a wider regional war erupts around Gaza.

Can the Houthis really hurt Israel? While they’re well-armed with cruise missiles and drones, they lack the accuracy to inflict sustained damage on Israel, particularly given the presence of US and Israeli missile defense systems in the region.

Still, the Houthis can certainly threaten or harass boat traffic through both the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz, two of the world’s most critical trade and energy routes.

And that combination of high firepower and low accuracy may itself be the biggest risk, says Brew. “If one of these missiles gets through and does serious damage,” he warns, “then you have the possibility of the conflict expanding fast.”


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