As Saudi-led airstrikes pummeled Sanaa, Hodeidah, and Marib in Yemen — resulting in 136 deaths over 12 days, including nine children and 45 pro-government prisoners — a Houthi-fired missile was aimed at the royal palace in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, which has been participating in U.S.-supported airstrikes against anti-government Houthi fighters since October 2015, blamed Iran for arming the rebels. The Gulf Kingdom as well as the United States, which recently escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric by presenting charred munitions to the media as proof of Iran’s support of the Houthis, have often repeated this charge.
Saudi State media also said aid routes were being used to get missiles to the Houthis.
Given the extent of Saudi involvement in Yemen — which is the subject of a human rights investigation at the U.N. over allegations of war crimes — experts have begun to question what rights, if any, the Houthis have to retaliate.
“Generally speaking, you have the right to defend yourself, by the international laws of war. If you you have someone firing at you, you have the right to fire back,” said Nabeel Khoury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who worked in the U.S. Foreign Service for 25 years.
He also noted that the laws call on parties to do their utmost to avoid hitting civilian areas, “and it’s been obvious the Saudis and the Arab coalition are using the best American-bought equipment to repeatedly hit civilian areas.”
“From the Houthi’s point of view…although they have the right to fire back, they are really foolish to do it. Because strategically, these rockets don’t change anything. It’s like poking a hive of bees or wasps. They’re all going to come flying out at you,” Khoury added. “All they are doing is poking…Haley and Saudi Arabia make a big deal out of it, but it doesn’t do anything. There hasn’t been one Saudi injured because of a couple of rockets that these guys have fired…the Houthis make lots of mistakes and this is one of them.”
In addition to confirming the deaths resulting from the airstrikes, the U.N. on Tuesday said that Saudi Arabia continues to maintain strict restrictions on supply ships reaching Yemen, leaving 8 million Yemenis on the brink of famine and going without crucial medical supplies, according to Reuters.
“We are deeply concerned at the recent surge in civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of intensified air strikes by the…coalition, following the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on Dec. 4,” said spokesman Rupert Colville.
The Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports began on November 6 and prompted international outcry among human rights advocates and humanitarian agencies. Since then, Reuters notes, the U.N.’s food program has managed to bring in enough food to feed 1.8 million for two months, but that “far more is needed.”
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both called on Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, but Khoury calls those demands “hypocritical,” adding, “All the U.S. has to do is to end the blockade is to end its support — they are the ones who are propping up the blockade.”
Colville also pointed to a strike on a prison as an error.
“One can assume that was a mistake, they weren’t intending to kill prisoners from their own side. It’s an illustration of lack of due precaution,” he said.
Khoury is skeptical, however, and wonders whether regular Saudi strikes on civilian targets are in fact even “mistakes,” given all the tactical intelligence with which they are provided.
“Are they deliberately targeting civilians to intimidate the Houthis? Or to get people to hate the Houthis because they are bringing on these strikes?” asked Khoury. “Why, without all this equipment, are they still killing civilians?”