The Iran-backed Houthi rebel group claimed on February 15 that it shot down a Tornado fighter jet belonging to Saudi Arabia. Houthi spokesman Yahya al-Saree said on Houthi-run Al-Masirah television that the jet was downed in the Al-Jawf governorate in northern Yemen by an “advanced surface-to-air missile.”
Later that day, Saudi Press Agency released an official coalition statement claiming that the Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado aircraft “crashed” while supporting the Yemeni government forces. One of Al Jazeera’s senior political analysts called the Houthis ability a “very significant” development, claiming that this new capability “would be a game-changer.”
Since 2017, Houthi rebel forces have shown a significant rise in military capabilities. Its ballistic missiles are capable of traveling over 800 miles before striking their target, its drones now carry explosive payloads, it has advanced sea mines to hinder travel through the nearby Bab el-Mandeb strait, and now the rebels may even have “advanced” surface-to-air missile batteries capable of shooting down Saudi jets.
This raises questions: Where are these technical advancements coming from? How could a group once dismissed as a “ragtag militia” comprised of shepherds and simple craftsmen now have such advanced military equipment?
The Houthi’s military power comes from one primary source: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In 2017, an unnamed Iranian official told Reuters that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (irgc) held a meeting to discuss ways to “empower” the Houthi militia. At the meeting, the irgc “agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support.”
United Nations sanctions prevent Iran from openly exporting military equipment to the Houthi movement in Yemen. This has forced Iran to illegally smuggle the equipment, which makes the shipment process take even longer.
London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported on Aug. 13, 2019, that Iran summoned Saree and Houthi Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Salam Felita to Tehran where the Houthis were assigned a new terrorist mission in the Red Sea.
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