On Sunday, 25 March, the Houthi rebels, who control a significant swath of Yemeni territory, including the capital Sana’a, launched missile attacks against air and military bases in the southern Saudi Arabian cities of Najran, Jizan and Abha. The following seven missiles also reached the airspace of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The latter attack was intercepted by Patriot Missiles however shrapnel from the interception landed on homes and resulted in the death of an unnamed Egyptian man and left two others wounded.
Following this series of missile attacks, Saudi Arabia immediately threatened to retaliate against Iran at the “right time and place” in a statement made by Saudi coalition spokesperson, Turki al-Maliki. At a press conference, Saudi authorities displayed recovered fragments of the missiles in question and attributed their manufacture to Iran. The Gulf Kingdom has long rationalized its involvement in Yemen as necessary in defending itself against the encroachment of Iranian aggression upon the country. Although evidence has emerged to suggest the Houthis receive a degree of Iranian support, this is far from conclusive. The argument that the Houthis are a mere Iranian proxy is hindered by actions which have demonstrated divergence from the strategic objectives of Tehran and furthermore by religious-political factors stemming from sectarian differences within Shia Islam.
Al Jazeera published a report on the events that contained a diverging assertion as to the source of the weapons, that they reported were “Soviet-era technology.” A Houthi spokesperson, Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, elucidated the rationale behind the attacks as a “response to the bombing of Yemeni cities, and the siege of the Yemeni people.” Hussain Albukhaiti, a man referred to by Al Jazeera as a “Houthi activist,” further stated that if Saudi Arabia wants peace the bombings must stop. These attacks could, therefore, be seen as a way of coercing Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table by demonstrating the Houthi’s military capacity.
The first statement carries the contentious implication that the attacks were counter-measures made out of self-defence. As the Houthis are a non-state actor with little international recognition, this implication is unlikely to be recognized as legitimate by any international body. While state practice has been developed allowing arguments for the use of force against non-state actors, the same does not apply in reverse. International law is contingent upon the consent of states and recourse to self-defence by groups acting against the sovereignty of a state recognized by the international community at large is generally unlikely to receive positive validation.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, strongly condemned the attacks and made no reference to the assertion made by the Houthis implying that they made a reasoned response to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign. The position of the UN is arguably informed by the prospect of Saudi Arabia limiting the inflow of humanitarian aid to Yemen as they previously did in November of 2017, a highly unfavourable outcome.
While the attacks have received widespread condemnation from both the leaders of nations allied with the Saudi-led coalition and international bodies, greater emphasis should be drawn to the actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. A UN panel convened in January stated that “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives … it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.” The Houthis are condemned in their attacks, however, international organizations and western allies of Saudi Arabia have a duty to ensure the coalition complies with the principles of international humanitarian law in ensuring minimum civilian casualties.