How access to missiles gives non-state actors an advantage in the Middle East

From the Gulf to Israel, countries and armed groups like Yemen’s Houthis and Palestinian Hamas are relying more than ever on guided missiles and rocket technology, which is changing the nature of warfare.

The Middle East has been embroiled in various conflicts and has become a battlefield where various war machines and weapons have been used by different states, but something unprecedented has happened in recent years.

Missile technology is no longer taboo for non-state actors. Different armed groups have unfettered access to different types of missiles, changing the nature of warfare.

“Missiles have become a balance in many asymmetric conflicts in the region, as non-state actors no longer rely solely on unconventional warfare tactics when targeting state adversaries who have traditionally had technological superiority,” says Andreas Krieg, Senior Lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London and Royal College of Defense Studies and Fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies.

According to recent studies, more than 5,000 advanced missiles have been launched in armed combat since World War II, and more than 90 percent of them have been used in the Middle East. The US is responsible for nearly 2,000 missile strikes in the region during its two invasions of Iraq and other operations in the Middle East.

“Everyone knows that the use of drones and ballistic missiles by states and non-states has changed the nature of warfare,” says Khalil Dewan, a researcher and analyst on drone warfare and armed conflict.

A missile should not be misconstrued as a missile. In military parlance, a missile is a long-range guided missile that can be launched from both static and mobile launch pads. Unlike rockets, rockets can penetrate deep into enemy territory, severely damaging people and infrastructure.

In recent years, Yemen’s Houthi rebel group has gained easy access to missile technology, and the armed group has used it against states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades in Palestine, has relied heavily on missiles during wars and skirmishes with Israeli forces.

But how do non-state actors acquire such weapons?

Iran, a Shia-majority country using many proxies from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in the Middle East, plays a pivotal role in supplying missiles and advanced missile technology to various armed groups in the Middle East. It not only supplies these groups with technical equipment, but also trains them in building homemade rockets.

“Iranian missile technology in particular has been widely procured in the region to bridge the technological gap between state and non-state actors. Equally important was drone technology, which has become much cheaper and has become the new AK 47 of insurgents and terrorist groups,” says Krieg TRT world.

A woman walks past Qiam (left), Zolfaghar (top right) and Dezful missiles on display at a missile capabilities exhibition in Iran. The Houthis use Burkan-3 missiles, which are a modified version of Qiam missiles. (Vahid Salemi / AP Archives)

The Houthis, fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, and Hamas, which is fighting Israel, have used both Iran-made missiles and the country’s missile technology to create homemade rockets and missiles.

“Drone and missile technology allows non-state actors to bypass conventional defenses and hit states deep within their territories, increasing the strategic cost and burden on state actors that may have operated with impunity in the past,” says Krieg.

“In the context of Palestine and Yemen, non-state actors have recently surprised their adversaries with both the quantity and quality of new ballistic technology available,” he adds.

In recent years, the use of missiles has become even more common from the Gulf to Syria and Palestine. In the past three weeks, the Houthis have repeatedly launched ballistic missiles at UAE territories, including the capital Abu Dhabi and the commercial hub of Dubai.

“Both Hamas and the Houthis are capable of inflicting damage on their opponents and taking the war deep within their territories, forcing the conventionally believed superior enemies to make concessions. While low-intensity insurgency might be sustainable for some state actors, ballistic missiles and drones produce high-impact strikes that are not sustainable for state actors in the long term,” Kreig says.

Houthis against the Emirates and Saudis

Since 2014, Yemen has been mired in a brutal civil war, pitting the Houthis Shia group against the Saudi-backed coalition that includes the UAE. The civil war also triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

While the Saudi-led coalition has launched deadly airstrikes against Houthi-controlled areas, the Shia group has also deployed its drones and ballistic missiles, targeting both Saudi and UAE territories.

“The recent activities of the Iran-backed Houthis against Abu Dhabi are an example of how domestically improvised drones can influence geopolitical negotiations and conflict dynamics at a low threshold of violence,” Dewan said TRT world.

The Houthis have recently targeted the United Arab Emirates as Abu Dhabi has stepped up its military involvement in the Yemen conflict and is helping its allies defeat the rebel group in the critical oil-rich regions, particularly Marib and Shabwa, experts say.

The UAE-backed Giants, a Yemeni militia, released footage allegedly showing their forces roaming through central Harib in Yemen's Marib governorate.

The UAE-backed Giants, a Yemeni militia, released footage allegedly showing their forces roaming through central Harib in Yemen’s Marib governorate. (AFP)

“The Houthis want the UAE to return to its non-confrontational policy and are firing rockets to urge Abu Dhabi to do so,” said Sami Hamdi, a Middle East political analyst and head of International Interest, a political risk group. in an earlier one TRT world Interview.

The first Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi airport killed three foreign workers, while the second attack left no casualties, according to Emirati sources. The third attack occurred this week during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, marking a first between the two countries.

Following the Houthi attacks, the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, a Yemeni force, announced last week that they would end their military offensive in the Houthi-held areas around Shabwa and Marib, according to Mohammed al Qadhi, a Yemeni expert. “This coincides with a halt to coalition airstrikes on Sana’a and other provinces,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Houthi attacks also appeared aimed at deterring the oil-rich UAE’s trading network, which includes many foreign investors.

Prior to their attack on the United Arab Emirates, the Houthis also sent many rockets into Saudi Arabia, targeting the country’s major oil production hubs, causing disruptions to the world’s oil supply for some time.

How states react

This week Israel also sent rockets into Syrian territory, targeting Iran-backed Hezbollah positions near the capital Damascus. Tel Aviv has previously attacked Syria on several occasions, reportedly hitting the supply lines and weapons depots of Iran-backed Shiite militias. Iran supports the Assad regime with the help of its Shia proxy forces in Syria.

But states are going beyond using missile technology to pursue their enemies and rival armed groups, and are developing better communication and cooperation among themselves to either defeat them or contain them. They use the most advanced technology to hone their fighting skills against non-state actors.

“The real game-changer is network-centric warfare, where states collaborate on signals intelligence, share target data, and enjoy multi-strike capabilities in conflicts in the MENA that they’re not even involved in,” says Dewan.

“This is the level of development where the changing nature of warfare is really at — which can be upgraded with artificial intelligence and autonomous beings,” he says.

“While newcomers to drone warfare focus on optics, machinery and sales, others in the shadows exploit ‘air supremacy’ and ‘air policing’.”

Source: TRT World

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