Yemen in Focus: Was the Houthi rebel's mass August offensive an exaggerated 'propaganda ploy'?

Yemen in Focus: Was the Houthi rebel's mass August offensive an exaggerated 'propaganda ploy'?
This week we look at doubts over the Houthi offensive that captured thousands of soldiers in August, a downgraded Fitch rating and more Western involvement in the conflict.
10 min read
01 October, 2019
The rebels published a video showing the captives [Al-Masirah TV]
Chief of all stories from Yemen this week was the Houthi revelations surrounding an August offensive against what is described as "enemy forces" near the southern Saudi region of Najran. 

The rebel movement initially reported it had captured thousands of Saudi soldiers in the assault before later correcting the wording in a statement published on the Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV which reported thousands of pro-government Saudi-backed fighters had been taken by the rebels.

"More than 200 were killed in dozens of (missile and drone) strikes while trying to escape or surrender," Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree said. "Over 2,000 fighters were taken prisoner," he added, saying most of them were Yemeni but that they included other prisoners.

He said that the three-day "large-scale" operation was launched on August 25, and showed footage purportedly of the attack, but it was not clear why the announcement was being made weeks later.

The coalition had no response to the Houthi claims on Saturday that Saudi troops were among those taken captive.

A Yemeni government source confirmed to AFP that some 200 soldiers were killed in an attack in late August, but that only about 1,300 fighters were still being held, including 280 who were wounded. 

The source said that Yemeni troops were surrounded for four days by the Houthis in the rebels' northern stronghold of Saada province. 

The "enemy soldiers" were captured in the attack that was supported by the movement's drone, missile and air defence units, a statement by the rebels said. 

A spokesman for the Yemen-based rebels said in a statement that three "enemy military brigades had fallen" in the attack, Reuters news agency reported on Saturday.

Just days after the initial reports, the rebels published video footage showcasing the entire attack. Two of the soldiers shown on Al-Masirah TV said they were from Saudi Arabia.

The news was described as "propaganda" by Yemen experts who urged the world to remain cautious of any Houthi claims - which in most cases are an attempt by the rebels to "claim a big victory".

"It's disappointing that many fall for Houthis propaganda and fail to see the big picture. The video they released does not show thousands or even dozens of Saudis - it shows dozens of Yemenis and that is what the story should be," a Yemen expert told The New Arab on condition of anonymity

"They [captured fighters] are recruited directly by the Saudis through local brokers as part of a human trafficking network that involves both Yemenis and Saudis. Although they are outside the Yemeni government chain of command, some Yemeni officials are involved in this trafficking network.

"These young men, which number at around 35,000, are motivated by the 1,500 Saudi Riyal per month they receive and are sent to fight without training," the expert said, describing their plight as "heartbreaking and horrific."

"This is mass murder and both Saudi and Yemeni governments are responsible. Some are subject to arbitrary detention and disappearance in Saudi prisons with no due process," the expert added.

But if that story did little to aid the Houthis this week, the rebel's move to release prisoners was widely seen as a positive step and a welcome development in the five-year stagnant conflict.

Some 290 prisoners, including dozens of survivors from a Saudi-led coalition strike on a detention centre earlier this month, were among those released on Monday, the ICRC confirmed on Monday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the move as "a positive step that will hopefully revive the release, transfer and repatriation of conflict-related detainees" under a deal struck last year between the rebels and Yemen's government.

The United Nations' special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, welcomed the initiative to "unilaterally release detainees".

"I hope this step will lead to further initiatives that will facilitate the exchange of all the conflict-related detainees as per the Stockholm Agreement," Griffiths said, referring to the 2018 accord.

He called on all parties to work together to speed prisoner releases, saying they and their families had "endured profound pain and suffering." 

In a statement, he urged the parties to meet at the "nearest opportunity" to resume the discussions on future exchanges.

The move came after the rebels announced plans to release 350 prisoners on Monday.

The rebel movement said three Saudis will be among those listed for release, according to a statement by the head of the Houthis' prisoner affairs committee, Houthi-run al-Masirah TV reported.

The 350 individuals were on the lists of persons drawn up as part of the prisoner exchange deal agreed in Stockholm in December, the statement added.

Those captured in the aforementioned August offensive near the Saudi border were not among those freed on Monday.

Downgraded credit rating

Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings on Monday downgraded Saudi Arabia's credit rating by one notch, citing "rising geopolitical and military tensions in the Gulf region" after unprecedentedly large attacks on the kingdom's oil industry.

The agency said in a statement it had lowered oil-rich Saudi Arabia's long-term foreign currency issuer rating from A+ to A, with a stable outlook.

Drone and missile attacks on September 14 on two key facilities, the Khurais oilfield and the world's largest oil processing plant at Abqaiq, knocked out half of Saudi oil production.

"We have revised our assessment of the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's economic infrastructure to regional military threats as a result of the most recent attack," Fitch said.

In a statement, the Saudi finance ministry criticised the downgrade, saying it did not reflect the kingdom's quick restoration of oil output after the attacks, and it urged Fitch to reverse its decision.

Quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency, the ministry said that it was "disappointed that Fitch took a swift decision to downgrade the kingdom". 

The September 14 attacks and aftermath instead "highlights Saudi Arabia's outstanding capacity to effectively deal with adversities... (and) commitment to maintaining stability in the global oil markets," it said.

The Saudi statement said that the kingdom has restored crude supplies to pre-attack levels and restored production capacity to 11.3 million barrels per day, with plans to reach full capacity of 12 million bpd in November.

"The downgrade of the rating comes across as somewhat speculative without direct reference to the swift, decisive and effective response to the event," the ministry said.

Risk of 'deeper conflict'

Fitch acknowledged in its downgrade note that energy giant Saudi Aramco has demonstrated resilience to the attacks by quickly restoring or substituting the lost production, mainly due to building large spare output capacity.

But it also said "although oil production was restored fully by end-September, we believe that there is a risk of further attacks on Saudi Arabia, which could result in economic damage".

The September 14 attacks were claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia leads a military coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis, which have carried out dozens of cross-border drone and missile attacks on Saudi targets, including oil facilities.

Fitch pointed to what it described as Riyadh's vulnerability to regional military threats.

"In our view, Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to escalating geopolitical tensions given its prominent foreign policy stance, including its close alignment with US policy on Iran and its continued involvement in the Yemen war," Fitch said.

"We see a risk that the US and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into a deeper conflict with Iran," it added.

Western blood

The move against the kingdom came after reports from the Pentagon said it would send one Patriot missile battery and four radar systems to Saudi Arabia in a fresh troop deployment after the kingdom's air defences were breached in an attack on its oil facilities. The deployment will involve about 200 troops.

Two more Patriot batteries and a THAAD missile defence system will be prepared to go later if needed.

The US last week announced it would deploy further troops and air defences to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Trump administration's first move to protect the kingdom from further attacks blamed on Iran. 

The four Sentinel radar systems and the Patriot battery are designed to provide better surveillance across northern Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom's air defences have until now been focused on the south to protect the country from attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But the US involvement in the deadly conflict goes even further. 

This week a bomb manufactured by a US corporation was used in an attack on a residential home that killed six civilians in Yemen, according to an Amnesty International  investigation.

It is the latest evidence in allegations pointing to US involvement in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. 

The laser-guided precision weapon was made by US company Raytheon and its use amounts to serious violations of international humanitarian law.

"It is unfathomable and unconscionable that the USA continues to feed the conveyor belt of arms flowing into Yemen's devastating conflict," said Rasha Mohamed, Amnesty International's Yemen Researcher.

"Despite the slew of evidence that the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition has time and again committed serious violations of international law, including possible war crimes, the USA and other arms-supplying countries such as the UK and France remain unmoved by the pain and chaos their arms are wreaking on the civilian population."

Among the six civilians killed in the attack were a 52-year-old woman and three children, aged 12, nine and six.

Under international humanitarian law it is unlawful to target civilians as part of military operations, and the closest military target to the victims' home had stopped operating two years prior, according to Amnesty International. 

Since March 2015, Amnesty's researchers have investigated dozens of airstrikes and repeatedly found and identified remnants of US-manufactured munitions.

London's hand in the conflict was also highlighted this week after reports confirmed British International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has admitted for the second time this month to selling arms components to Saudi Arabia despite a court order barring sales earlier this year.

Truss earlier this month apologised for breaching the law with sales of military equipment licenses to the controversial kingdom "made in error". 

A UK court ruled in June that it was illegal for the government to license weapons exports to Saudi Arabia without first assessing whether there was an "historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law" by the Saudi-led coalition that has fought Yemen's Houthi rebels since 2015.

The trade secretary told the Parliament on Thursday that the government had breached the court order for a third time.

The sale was detected by civil servants in Truss' department, which launched an inquiry after the secretary's earlier revelation.

The government had authorised a contract to repair equipment used by the Saudi military to detect improvised explosive devices.

The law bars the government from allowing the sale of any military equipment that is suspected to be used in Yemen.

Truss added that the export license had not yet been used and has now been revoked, offering an "unreserved apology" for the breach.

But she added that the government had also broken additional decrees to bar the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia's coalition partners in Yemen.

Jordan was in August granted a license for fuel gauges for F-16 jets, which was not used and has since been revoked, Truss said.

Opposition politicians have called for Truss to resign over the breaches.

"The apology is welcome but the narrative is shameful," Labour MP Keith Vaz said, according to The Guardian. "Last week a bomb fell on a mosque and on a family eating their dinner. What do they put on the death certificates? Is it death by administrative error?"

Shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner slammed the government, claiming the sales were made on purpose.

"The government did know, they just didn't tell the secretary of state's department," he said. "Which department knew?"

The UK has licensed around £5 billion ($6.2 billion) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began in 2015.

"We are always being told how rigorous and robust arms export controls supposedly are, but this shows that nothing could be further from the truth. The system is clearly broken and unfit for purpose," Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade said in a statement.

"Even if it was in error, it is clear that the Government can not be trusted to uphold the ruling of the Court of Appeal. There can be no more excuses."

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.