Two days after major attacks on two oil industry sites in Saudi Arabia, significant questions remain about who was actually responsible and how they prosecuted the strikes. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken credit for the operation, which caused extensive damage to the world's largest oil processing facility and led to a partial shutdown that has immediately resulted in a five percent cut in global oil production. The United States has disputed this, accusing Iran of being directly involved and saying the strikes did not appear to have originated on Yemeni territory. President Donald Trump has pledged to help the Saudis defend themselves, but has also said that he's in "no rush" to respond to the incidents.
The strikes occurred on the night of Sept. 14-15, 2019, at the Abqaiq oil processing facility, which is situated around 40 miles southwest of the port of Dammam on the Persian Gulf, and the Khurais oil field, which is further to the southwest. Saudi officials have stated that there were no casualties arising from the attacks and that the large resulting fires were under control. On Sept. 16, 2019, Saudi Arabian Colonel Turki Al Malki, the chief spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis, told reporters that the country was conducting an investigation into the incidents.
“The preliminary results show that the weapons are Iranian and we are currently working to determine the location [of the launches]," Al Malki said. "The terrorist attack did not originate from Yemen as the Houthi militia claimed."
To give a general sense of the distances involved, it is roughly 780 miles from the Houthis' main areas of operation in southwestern Yemen to Abqaiq, though it is only around 530 miles from there to the extreme northeastern corner of Yemen, where the group exercises no control. The refinery is also around 330 miles from southern Iraq and around 200 miles across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
Al Malki did not specify what kinds of weapons caused the damage at Abqaiq and Khurais or offer any details about how Saudi authorities had arrived at the conclusion that whoever was responsible had not fired them from Yemen.
"Saudi Arabia is capable of defending its lands and people and can respond strongly to these attacks," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry also said in a separate statement that did not attribute the attacks to any particular party. the Saudis have also requested that the United Nations conduct an independent assessment.
The U.S. government has released a number of annotated satellite images of both sites following the attack from commercial imagery provider Digital Globe. Unnamed American officials have also told various news outlets that these images, along with other intelligence, show that the strikes came from the west-northwest, but have provided little corroborating evidence to support this assertion.
It is important to note that the direction of the impact points does not automatically give one the direction of a drone or missile's launch site. Using waypoints, a weapon could fly a more complex route to the target, possibly with an eye toward dodging defenses or masking its point of origin.
A key factor in the U.S. government's assessment appears to be the belief that the Houthis do not have suicide drones that could cause the level of damage seen at Abqaiq and Khurais and with sufficient range to have been able to execute the strikes from southwestern Yemen proper. In addition, the Houthis have claimed that they launched 10 drones, but have, so far, declined to offer any evidence to substantiate that.
Unnamed American government sources have said that the intelligence indicates between 17 and 19 total impact points. Other U.S. government sources have said that more than 20 drones or missiles may have been involved, but not all of them reached their targets. It is possible that the Houthis launched a mixed strike with both suicide drones and missiles, something they have done before, and they may have only decided to disclose to the total number of unmanned aircraft for some reason.
Iran has categorically denied being involved in any way. Houthi unmanned aircraft designs, as well as those of their missiles, many of which are seen in the video below, show clear hallmarks of at least Iranian support, if not simply direct deliveries of at least some of those weapons to the Yemeni rebels.
"Remember when Iran shot down a [U.S. Navy] drone, saying knowingly that it was in their 'airspace' when, in fact, it was nowhere close," President Trump Tweeted out on Sept. 16, 2019. "They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie. Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?"
"Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked," Trump had written in another Tweet the day before. "There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!"
At the same time, this support from Iran has also given the Houthis an increasingly extensive drone and missile arsenal of ever-increasing capabilities. This has grown this year to include Quds-1 ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles, which the Yemeni rebels have already employed against targets in Saudi Arabia, albeit those targets were significantly closer than Abqaiq and Khurais.
The series of videos below show the Houthis launching a Quds-1 at Abha International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia in June 2019, as well as security camera footage from inside the main terminal during the strike and additional views of the resulting damage.
The Quds-1 is externally similar to Iran's Soumar ground-launched cruise missile, but is significantly smaller based on video and pictures of the weapon the Houthis released in July 2019. Experts have assessed that the Yemeni weapon's range is also shorter based on its the smaller, less efficient engine. So, while the Soumar can reportedly hit targets just under 840 miles away, Quds-1 may have a range of half of that, or less.
This could have made it difficult, if not impossible for the Houthis to have launched these missiles from southwestern Yemen, though it might have been possible to do so if they could find a way to infiltrate into the northeastern part of the country. The Yemeni rebels have also struck Saudi oil pipelines with drones much further to the west in the past, but still at ranges in excess of 500 miles from their base of operations in Yemen.
This again would raise the possibility that the Houthis might have been able to move their launchers into the northeastern portion of the country in order to conduct the strikes, or that they have increased the range of these weapons. Whatever the mix of weapons involved, and their respective launch sites, unconfirmed images have appeared online that do show what looks to be the wreckage of a Quds-1 in the Arabian Desert that failed to reach its target, strongly suggesting that those missiles were part of strikes. The War Zone has a separate analysis of the technical issues surrounding the strikes in Saudi Arabia coming shortly that will cover much of these factors in greater depth.
Whether or not the missiles, as well as any drones, actually flew from Yemen, if they used an unusual vector of attack, it may have further limited the Saudi military's ability to respond to the strikes at Abqaiq and Khurais. The Houthis have been launching drones and missiles, include short-range ballistic missiles, at targets in Saudi Arabia for years now. Saudi authorities have claimed that the country's air defenses, including Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries and F-15 fighter jets, have intercepted a significant number of these incoming threats.
However, there has been evidence that the Saudis may have been, at best, inflating the number of successful intercepts and downplaying the scale of damage that the Houthis have been able to cause over the past two years or so. In July 2019, the U.S. military confirmed that it was preparing to deploy its own Patriot battery to Saudi Arabia, as well as potentially fighter jets and other personnel in the future, to bolster the country's air defense.
It is also worth remembering that no air defense system is perfect and that low-flying drones and cruise missiles can be particularly difficult to spot, track, and shoot down, to begin with. The Saudi Arabians are hardly the only country to experience this reality first hand. Of course, that didn't stop Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the opportunity to pitch possible sales of his country's S-400 surface-to-air missile system to Saudi Arabia, something officials in Riyadh have already reportedly pledged to buy in principle in the past.
If the missiles did not originate from Yemen, but instead came from the northwest, one prospective launch site location would have been within southern Iraq. If Iran had launched missiles from their own territory, or from a boat in the northern end of the Persian Gulf, the weapons would have had to follow a route using waypoints to hit from the northwest.
It is worth noting that, in May 2019, the U.S. government first announced it had intelligence that indicated Iran might be preparing to launch attacks on American military personnel or other interests across the Middle East. This assessment was reportedly based, in part, on satellite imagery that appeared to show elements of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) loading large missiles – possibly cruise missiles – onto boats in the Persian Gulf.
The United States has since accused Iran of being responsible for a number of waterborne attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year. The Houthis have also claimed multiple attacks on military and commercial ships in recent years, using unmanned, explosive-laden boats at least built with technology sourced from Iran. Just how independently they may have been conducting those operations from their Iranian benefactors is unclear.
The exact nature of these activities, or how confident the U.S. Intelligence Community was in that assessment, also remains unclear. A reportedly declassified, but unreleased satellite image showing the purportedly missile-laden boats has yet to emerge publicly. The U.S. government says it is now trying to declassify separate intelligence imagery related to these latest strikes in Saudi Arabia that would bolster its case, as well.
An attack originating from Iraq could still be tied to Iran via powerful militias it supports that country, who have recently found themselves reportedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes. That same stream of intelligence starting in May had included information that pointed to the IRGC attempting to goad these groups into launching attacks on American interests within Iraq. This raises the possibility that the IRGC could be treating the Quds-1 missile as a design specifically intended for proxy forces that offers some deniability given that it is distinct from weapons Iranian forces employ themselves.
There were reports that unnamed Iraqi intelligence officials had blamed Iranian-backed militias for the strikes in Saudi Arabia, but there is no hard evidence to support this as yet. Iraq's government has officially denied any involvement, as well as that the strikes originated from its territory.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi did speak by phone on Sept. 16, 2019. "On his part the U.S. Secretary of State said the information they have confirms the Iraqi government’s statement that its territory was not used to carry out this attack," according to a readout of the call from Abdul Mahdi’s office.
The U.S. State Department has yet to release any statement of its own. There are separate reports that the Iraqi government has made new moves to increase how much direct control the country's military has over various militias, including Iranian-backed groups, collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, which continue to enjoy considerable autonomy. The United States has been pressuring Iraq to do more on this front for some time and there is no evidence one way or another that this is connected to the strikes on Saudi Arabia.
Of course, no matter which one of Iran's proxies was responsible for the strikes on Saudi Arabia, or if Iran itself was responsible, the incidents have underscored just how vulnerable a significant portion of the world's oil production actually is. As noted, Abqaiq is the largest oil production facility in the world and the Saudi government's decision to shut down half of it equates to cutting back five percent of global output. This strikes immediately caused the price of crude oil to spike.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has not called on the other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) bloc to increase production to meet the shortfalls, saying it will mitigate supply issues by tapping into its own reserves. President Trump has also authorized the release of oil from American national reserves, if necessary.
The question, now, largely becomes one of how the Saudis and its international partners, primarily the United States, will respond in order to make clear that this kind of action isn't tolerable. Trump has already indicated that the United States will defer to authorities in Riyadh, though it remains to be seen if this will actually be the case.
At the same time, the American president has insisted that disruptions in Middle East oil production are of limited concern to the United States itself, given increased U.S. production. "But will help our Allies!" he Tweeted on Sept. 16, 2019.
Whether this takes the form of more sanctions, which the United States has steadily heaped on Iran in the past year or so, or more direct action remains to be seen. Any form of military action would almost certainly provoke additional tit-for-tat responses from Iranian forces, or their proxies, which could lead to a cycle of escalation and concerns about a broader conflict that would be devastating for the region as a whole and could have far-reaching economic impacts. It's also not clear then what benefits Iran itself would necessarily derive from such a provocative act, especially if they launched the weapons from their own territory. This does not preclude those within the Iranian government, such as the IRGC, who might have devised and carried out the strikes from overestimating their ability to conceal their involvement, otherwise underestimating the risks associated with the plan, or simply not caring.
So far, the United States has resisted direct military action, even in response to the shootdown of the U.S. Navy drone in June 2019. The U.S. government has decided instead to focus on bolstering defenses throughout the region and taking other deterrent measures, while working to establish new security constructs with allies and partners with varying degrees of success.
Trump has also offered repeatedly to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions to try to deescalate tensions that have been brewing between the two countries for months now. Iran has rebuffed these offers, calling for relaxed sanctions and other concessions before any possibility of talks.
Still, the U.S. President may be increasingly frustrated with Iran's negative responses to his offers. On Sept. 15, 2019, he Tweeted out a denial that he had ever proposed meeting Iranian officials without conditions, despite video clips and official statements where he clearly makes this offer.
What the Saudis publicly determine from their investigation may prove to be the deciding factor. There are already indications that support for the country's war against the Houthis may be flagging. In August 2019, the United Arab Emirates, the second-largest contributor to the Saudi-led coalition, officially terminated operations against the rebels and withdrew a significant amount of its forces from the country, in large part because it had made the country a target for Iran and its proxies.
The UAE has now also held direct meetings with Iranian authorities, indicating an effort to for the two countries to come to some new understanding, and continues to decline to blame Iran directly for the tanker attacks off its coastline in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year. Of course, it is worth noting that just today, Iran did seize a UAE-flagged ship, accusing it of being involved in fuel smuggling.
What appetite there might be in Saudi Arabia for a more open conflict with Iran, or one between the United States and Iran where it could easily find itself in the crossfire, is unclear. Vice President Mike Pence's Chief of Staff also sought to downplay Trump's "locked and loaded" rhetoric today, claiming it was just a reference to the security that increasing energy independence has offered the United States.
Trump himself has now said that he "would certainly help" Saudi Arabia if they were "under attack," but that the United States is in "no rush" to respond directly to the strikes and wanted to avoid a conflict with Iran. The President did not explain how his definition of "under attack" might differ from the level of attacks that Saudi Arabia is experiencing now.
Unfortunately, what is clear is that the strikes on Abqaiq and Khurais are unprecedented in scale and scope, no matter who carried them out. The Saudis and their partners, such as the United States, will not be able to ignore these attacks and the calls for some form of more direct response to Iran may become increasingly inescapable.
UPDATE: 5:20pm EST—
Trump has now made additional statements regarding Iran, saying that he believed that he believed it would be proportional to strikes Iran in response to the strikes in Saudi Arabia. He also said that the United States was "more prepared than any country in history" for a potential war.
UPDATE: 10:00pm EST—
CNN has reported that the U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told staffers that Saudi Arabian authorities viewed the attack as "their 9/11" and that the Houthis were not responsible. He also said that the strikes did not originate from Iraq and that the Houthis were not responsible. He added that Trump was not deterred from his desire to engage with the Iranians.
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