- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed Wednesday to have shot down a U.S. drone in Yemen earlier this week in what would be the third downing of an American aircraft at the hands of Tehran and its Middle East allies in less than three months.

Yahia Sarie, a spokesman for the Houthis in Yemen, said the group took down the MQ-9 drone near the city of Dhamar on Tuesday. He claimed that the weapons used to target the drone were built inside Yemen and would soon be shown publicly.

“The rocket which hit it was developed locally and will be revealed soon at a press conference,” he said.

U.S. officials confirmed that the drone had been shot down, Reuters reported Wednesday, though the Pentagon said little publicly. Military officials said they’re still gathering information.

“We are investigating reports of an attack by Iranian-backed Houthis forces on a U.S. unmanned aerial system (UAS) operating in authorized airspace over Yemen,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown said in a statement Wednesday. “We have been clear that Iran’s provocative actions and support to militants and proxies, like the Iranian-backed Houthis, poses a serious threat to stability in the region and our partners.”

If confirmed, the attack would be the third downing of American drone this summer.

In early June, another American drone was shot down by Houthi forces in Yemen. Later that same month, Iran downed a U.S. Global Hawk aircraft that Tehran claimed had entered Iranian airspace — an assertion the Pentagon denied.

President Trump said that he nearly launched retaliatory airstrikes against Iran following the incident but ultimately decided against the move, citing the high number of civilians that would’ve been killed.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have cooled slightly since that incident, but the most recent attack on an American drone could add fresh fuel to a volatile dynamic in the Middle East.

Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Wednesday that the U.S. drone had been brought down by a “precision missile.” Iranian media also said that the missile was “domestically developed” in Yemen.

That claim, along with the Houthis’ statement that the weapon was “developed locally,” seems designed to distance Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — recently formally declared by the Trump administration to be a terrorist organization — from the rebel groups in Yemen.

Specialists say that in this instance there should be little distinction between the two sides. They argue that the Houthis, who are locked in a long, bloody civil war with the Saudi Arabia-backed government in Yemen, are capable of little without the direct aid of Iran.

“The Houthi rebels in Yemen have become Iran’s favorite proxy, so of course in Iraq or in Lebanon, the Iran-backed militias cannot take action because they would risk direct confrontation with U.S. forces in the region,” Fatima al-Asrar, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said Wednesday.

“But in Yemen, because of the ongoing conflict, it has become very easy for Iran to use the Houthis to destabilize the Gulf, to send a message to the United States while hiding behind plausible deniability, saying that it has really no relations with the Houthi communities. And it’s basically a complete lie, because the Houthis have gotten all of their capabilities, from the drones, from the ballistic missiles, through the IRGC,” she told a forum hosted by the Hudson Institute on Wednesday.

⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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