Saudi Arabia said it intercepted ballistic missiles and shot down unmanned aircraft sent from Yemen in the latest attack by pro-Iranian rebels who showed better military capabilities more than three years after the conflict.
A missile was intercepted in Riyadh with loud explosions heard in the night sky over the Saudi capital on Wednesday. Two other missiles were intercepted in the southern areas of Jazan and Najran, authorities said. The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said it also shot down an unmanned aircraft targeting an airport in the southwestern province of Abha and another in Jazan.
The missiles were fired just hours after the president Donald Trump confirmed that he would beat the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are backed by Russia and Iran, for an alleged attack with chemical weapons. The State Department said the Houthi attacks on Saudi population centers were "fueled by the dangerous proliferation of weapons and destabilizing activities in the region."
"It is difficult to see the timing of the last Houthi attack in 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 ending a foreign tour of the world capitals and has repeatedly accused Iran of trying to destabilize the kingdom, he said.
The Houthis have been targeting their ballistic missiles in major Saudi cities and targets more regularly in recent months than any other period in the three-year war. The kingdom and its allies accuse Iran of arming the Houthis, an accusation that Tehran denies.
"The Houthis have certainly intensified their attacks on their northern neighbor, but the regional tension is intensifying, particularly as a result of recent developments related to Syria, Iran, through the Houthis, probably wanted to send a message to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "
A missile fired in December pointed to the main royal palace during a cabinet session headed by King Salman. Last month, Saudi defenses intercepted seven ballistic missiles fired in Riyadh and other cities by the Houthis, the largest bombardment since the war began in March 2015.
The Houthis, who have repeatedly attacked the kingdom in retaliation for His offensive inside Yemen said that Wednesday's attack on Riyadh was directed to the Ministry of Defense.
"The capabilities of the Houthis have improved – with external 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 at Control Risks. And while Saudi Arabia has one of the best defense systems in the world, the risk of a missile or a drone reaching targets "at some point" will increase with more regular attacks, he said.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been able to recover the areas in southern Yemen from the Houthis, but the rebels still control the Sana'a capital and the northern territories.
The conflict has caused a humanitarian disaster with thousands of deaths, diseases, hunger and displacement of civilians.
– With the assistance of Glen Carey, and Dana Khraiche