Why did the Houthis attack Riyadh?

Rebel group tells Al Jazeera it is open to peace talks but only if the Saudi-led coalition halts all air attacks.

A decision by Yemen’s Houthi rebels to fire seven missiles into Saudi Arabia was ostensibly a response to its northern neighbour’s three years of air attacks, the armed group told Al Jazeera.

Striking deeper then ever before, the Houthis fired four missiles at air and military bases in the southern Saudi cities of Abha, Jizan and Najran late on Sunday, in the run-up to the three-year anniversary of the bloody war.

But it was three missiles directed at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, nearly 1,000km across the border, that captivated the attention of mainstream media and overshadowed the start of the conflict.

Using Soviet-era technology, the Houthis managed to fire three modified scud missiles at Riyadh before they were reportedly intercepted by the kingdom’s air defence system.

Saudi authorities reported one Egyptian resident was killed by shrapnel after Saudi interceptors destroyed the missile before it could reach its intended target – King Khalid international airport.

Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a spokesman for the Houthis, told Al Jazeera the attack was justified and was in “response to the bombing of Yemeni cities, and the siege of the Yemeni people”.

Bukhaiti called the attacks against Saudi “completely rational”, considering the devastating toll air attacks were taking on Yemen’s densely packed civilian neighbourhoods.

Hussain Albukhaiti, a prominent Houthi activist, echoed this view, telling Al Jazeera the attacks were justified “since there was no ceasefire agreement between the two warring parties”.

“If the Saudis want peace, we have told them to stop their air strikes,” he said.

“If they do that, we will stop our missiles. But if they continue, we have every right to defend ourselves.”

Wracked by violence

Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, has been wracked by violence since the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014.

The conflict escalated in March 2015 after a coalition of Arab countries assembled by Saudi Arabia launched a massive bombing campaign aimed at rolling back their advances.

Since then, the Saudis have carried out more than 16,000 air raids, resulting in mass civilian casualties with weddings, hospitals and funerals targeted.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the raids, and more than 100,000 children are estimated to have died from preventable disease.

Albukhaiti said the King Khalid airport was specifically targeted as it housed a military base that was involved in the bombing of Yemen.

“The Houthis haven’t targeted Saudi civilians, markets, or places where ordinary people live. They avoid civilian spaces.

“But the Saudis have and continue to bomb civilian infrastructure in Yemen, the Houthis are not the aggressors. They are.”

‘Missile attack could backfire’

While the Saudis continue to carry out a massive aerial campaign in Yemen, they have expressed a desire to wrap up the conflict.

Coalition forces have made modest territorial gains, but appear far from seizing back the capital from the seasoned Houthi fighters.

According to several sources Al Jazeera spoke to, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam has been in direct communication with Saudi officials in Oman on a comprehensive solution to end the conflict.

However, the Houthis have demanded that the Saudis cease all bombing, open Sanaa airport and its airspace, and pay civil servants their salaries that have been withheld for months.

Martin Reardon, a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a strategic security and intelligence consultancy, said it was unlikely the missile attacks could derail future peace talks.

“Talks to end the fighting are ongoing but they’re not going particularly well,” he said.

“What the Houthis have done is told the Saudis, ‘we can still attack you’. This could either lead to a resolution and some kind of a ceasefire, or it could backfire completely and lead to more fighting.”

As the fighting continues, the UN Security Council has said 22.2 million of Yemen’s 27.5 million population are in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 3.4 million from last year.

The war has also severely damaged the country’s infrastructure with up to eight million people at risk of starvation, and more than one million contracting cholera.

Source: Al Jazeera