Iran-Backed Militias Escalate Attacks on U.S., United Arab Emirates

COMMENTARY Middle East

Iran-Backed Militias Escalate Attacks on U.S., United Arab Emirates

Jan 28, 2022 6 min read

Commentary By

James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

Nicole Robinson

Senior Research Associate, Middle East

Yemeni pro-government fighters from the UAE-trained Giants Brigade, on their way to the frontline facing pro-Iran Huthi fighters, on January 28, 2022. SALEH AL-OBEIDI / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

These continuing Houthi attacks are part of a broader Iranian-orchestrated proxy shadow war against the U.S. and its allies in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria.

The Houthis are working very closely with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, something the Biden administration is reluctant to acknowledge.

It is time for the Biden administration to hold the Houthis and their Iranian patrons accountable for their terrorist missile and drone attacks.

Yemen’s Houthi militants have escalated ballistic missile and drone strikes on the United Arab Emirates as part of their war against the Saudi-led coalition that supports Yemen’s internationally recognized government in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

These continuing Houthi attacks are part of a broader Iranian-orchestrated proxy shadow war against the U.S. and its allies in the Persian GulfIraq, and Syria, which has escalated in recent weeks.

On Monday, the UAE government announced that its armed forces had shot down two ballistic missiles targeting its capital city, Abu Dhabi, launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a radical Shia Islamist movement backed by Iran. 

The U.S. Air Force also reported that it intervened to defend against the ballistic missile attack. 

The Houthis claimed that they had targeted Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, which hosts roughly 2,000 American airmen serving in the U.S. Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. American personnel were put on a heightened state of alert and moved to security bunkers after the missile alert sounded.

Although the latest attack failed to inflict casualties, the Houthis claimed responsibility for a Jan. 17 ballistic missile, cruise missile, and drone attack on the Abu Dhabi airport and a fuel depot that killed three foreign workers.

The Houthis assert that the ballistic missile attacks are retaliation for UAE military activity in Yemen, including a UAE-backed counteroffensive in Yemen’s oil-rich Shabwa province that threatens to reverse recent Houthi military gains in the long-running war. 

The UAE announced it was withdrawing its military forces from Yemen’s war in 2019 but has continued its support for local militias opposed to the Houthis. One of those militias, the Giants Brigades, recently spearheaded the military campaign in Shabwa that inflicted a major battlefield defeat on the Houthis.

In addition to launching long-distance terrorist attacks against UAE and Saudi civilian targets, the Houthis also have resorted to piracy. They illegally seized an Emirates-flagged ship in the Red Sea on Jan. 3, which the U.N. Security Council has demanded that they release, along with its crew.

Iran’s Not-so-Hidden Hand

Houthi attacks are part of a broader Iranian-orchestrated proxy shadow war against the U.S. and its allies in the Persian GulfIraq, and Syria.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have smuggled drones, missiles, and other advanced military technology to their Houthi allies, trained them in the use of increasingly sophisticated weapons, and are suspected of playing an important role in launching missiles at distant targets.   

The Houthis are not the only Iranian proxies threatening the UAE. A spokesman for Iran-backed Iraqi militias on Jan. 21 also threatened to attack the UAE and falsely accused it of supporting the Islamic State terrorists who continue to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arm, equip, and train Iraqi, Lebanese, and Syrian militias, just as they support Yemen’s Houthis. All of these groups pose lethal threats not only to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and local civilians, but also to the United States and Israel.

When tensions between Iran and the United States peaked in January 2020 due to intensifying attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by Iran-backed militias, the Trump administration responded by launching a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani. As the head of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which coordinates the activities of Iran’s proxy militias, Soleimani was the chief architect of Iran’s proxy war strategy. 

Soleimani’s successor, Gen. Esmail Gaani, issued a broad threat in a speech commemorating the second anniversary of Soleimani’s death earlier this month: “We will facilitate revenge on Americans in any place, even their own homes and by people close to them, even if we are not present.”

Immediately following the anniversary, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria escalated their attacks on U.S. interests. Over a four-day period beginning Jan. 3, they unleashed a series of rocket and drone attacks on U.S. military forces in Iraq and on the living quarters of State Department employees at the Baghdad airport.

Not to be outdone, the Houthis seized an Emirati-flagged ship to mark the second anniversary of Soleimani’s death, the same day that Iranian hackers launched cyberattacks against two Israeli newspapers. 

Clearly, the Houthis are working very closely with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, whose support was indispensable for their missile and drone strikes on the UAE, something the Biden administration is reluctant to acknowledge.

Biden’s Bungled Yemen Policy

The Biden administration has turned a blind eye to Houthi attacks against Saudi and Emirati civilian targets, which amount to terrorism. One of the administration’s first moves last February was to revoke the terrorist designation and sanctions levied against the Houthis by the Trump administration.

Although the administration cited humanitarian reasons and the need to avoid impeding foreign assistance for reversing President Donald Trump’s policy, the Houthi Ansarallah movement poses one of the chief humanitarian threats to Yemen’s people, as well as to its neighbors.

Despite the administration’s concession on sanctions, the Houthis escalated their missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Rather than engage in good faith negotiations to end the war, Ansarallah pushed for a decisive military victory, thereby prolonging the fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

The Houthis also repaid President Joe Biden’s favor on Nov. 10, 2021, by invading the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, which had been closed down in 2015 due to fighting in the city. The Houthis looted the compound and took several Yemeni caretakers as hostages.

This humiliating slap in the face exposed the Biden administration’s failure to protect U.S. interests but failed to trigger a realistic rethink of U.S. policy.

In part, this is because Biden’s “diplomacy first” approach to Yemen has been a disastrous outgrowth of the administration’s soft-headed Iran policy.

The administration squandered the leverage amassed under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” Iran policy, it relaxed sanctions against Iran, and it downplayed the importance of China’s surging imports of Iranian oil as well as the threats posed by Iran’s proxy militias.

These complacent policies have emboldened Tehran to make maximalist demands at the nuclear talks in Vienna and take greater risks in orchestrating proxy attacks against U.S. military forces and allies in the Middle East.

In response to Houthi missile attacks, the UAE and the Arab League have urged the Biden administration to re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. 

Biden should immediately do so and enforce sanctions on the group to protect not only Emirati civilians threatened by such terror tactics, but also to protect Americans and U.S. interests in the region. Roughly 50,000 Americans live in the UAE, one of the world’s most important financial centers and transportation hubs.

Houthi attacks against the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and international shipping in the Red Sea jeopardize the stability of the region as well as the flow of oil exports to other regions. 

The Houthis also play an important role in Iran’s shadow war against the U.S. and its allies. After a year of mistakenly giving them the benefit of the doubt—only to reap disastrous consequences—it is time for the Biden administration to hold the Houthis and their Iranian patrons accountable for their terrorist missile and drone attacks.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal