(BBG) Saudi Arabia said it intercepted ballistic missiles and shot down drones sent from Yemen, in the latest attack by pro-Iranian rebels that showed improved military capabilities more than three years into the conflict.
One missile was intercepted over Riyadh, with loud blasts heard in the night sky above the Saudi capital on Wednesday. Two other missiles were intercepted over the southern areas of Jazan and Najran, authorities said. The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said it also downed a drone targeting an airport in the southwestern province of Abha and another in Jazan.
The missiles were fired just hours after President Donald Trump confirmed the U.S. would strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are backed by Russia and Iran, over a suspected chemical weapons attack. The State Department said the Houthi attacks on Saudi population centers were “fueled by the Iranian regime’s dangerous proliferation of weapons and destabilizing activities in the region.”
“It’s hard to see the timing of the latest Houthi strike on Saudi Arabia as purely coincidental,” said Hani Sabra, founder of Advisory, a New York-based consultancy. The attack is probably an Iranian message to embarrass Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is wrapping up a foreign tour to world capitals and has repeatedly accused Iran of seeking to destabilize the kingdom, he said.
The Houthis have been aiming their ballistic missiles at major Saudi cities and targets more regularly in the past few months than any other period in the three-year war. The kingdom and its allies accuse Iran of arming the Houthis, a charge Tehran denies.
“The Houthis have indeed been stepping up their attacks on their northern neighbor, but with regional tension sharply escalating, particularly as a result of recent Syria-related developments, Iran, through the Houthis, probably wanted to send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a message,” Sabra said.
A missile fired in December was aimed at the main royal palace during a cabinet session headed by King Salman. Last month, Saudi defenses intercepted seven ballistic missiles fired at Riyadh and other cities by the Houthis, the biggest such barrage since the war began in March 2015.
The Houthis, who have repeatedly targeted the kingdom in retaliation for its offensive inside Yemen, said Wednesday’s attack on Riyadh was directed at the defense ministry.
“The Houthis’ capabilities have improved — with outside assistance — over the course of the conflict, and it is reasonable to expect that they will continue to do so for the duration of the conflict,” said Allison Wood, an analyst with Control Risks. And while Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s best defense systems, the risk of a missile or a drone hitting targets “at some point” will increase with more regular attacks, he said.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been able to recover areas in southern Yemen from the Houthis, but the rebels still control the capital Sana’a and territories in the north.
The conflict has caused a humanitarian disaster with thousands of civilian deaths, disease, hunger and displacement.