Iran’s goal: Turn Yemen into Saudi’s Vietnam
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Videos published by pro-Houthi and pro-Iranian media appear to show hundreds of Saudi-backed fighters routed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This comes after a day in which rumors swirled that the Houthis had destroyed three brigades and captured thousands of troops. This comes two weeks after the drone and cruise missile attack on oil processing facilities at Abqaiq. The US has blamed Iran for that Abqaiq attack and it now appears Yemen’s real message is that Yemen will become Riyadh’s Vietnam.
The spokesman for the Houthis said on September 28 that the rebels had defeated “three Saudi military brigades” and completely destroyed them during a large military offensive in Saudi Arabia’s Najran region. The actual statement accused the Saudis of using Saudi-sponsored Yemeni militiamen loyal to Yemen’s former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. “Hundreds more were killed and wounded.” Hadi fled Yemen in 2015 during the Houthi rebel advance on Aden. He is a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 to try to stop the Houthis capturing Aden and threatening the straits of Bab el-Mandeb.
The Houthis, who Iranian media describe as the legitimate armed forces of Yemen, say they began an operation on Friday dubbed “victory from God” and that they have made advances. On Sunday the Houthis released video showing captured soldiers and a column of armored vehicles being destroyed. It looked like a scene from Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley where Soviet tanks were destroyed during the Afghan war. But it might as well be the Tet offensive in 1968 the way the Houthis and their allies are using it as bragging rights over their apparent defeat of what should be modern Saudi-equipped army fighting poor rebels.
Unsurprisingly Saudi media have not confirmed the battles and social media accounts have claimed the Yemen videos are old, but no one has showed proof that all the videos are actually old videos. Several videos showing anti-tank rounds hitting Oshkosh armored vehicles appear to actually be from April 2018 or June 2019. We need to understand the larger picture here. This is a propaganda victory, pure and simple, for Yemen. That is why Yahya Sarih, the spokesman of the Houthis, has been appearing on TV with a military uniform as if they have won. That is why Al-Mayadeen which is sympathetic to the Iranian-backed alliance of Hezbollah, Syria’s regime and the Houthis, has broadcast video of the men captured. It is why Al-Manar, which is close to Hezbollah, is so excited. It is why Fars News in Farsi has broadcast the same video of the captured men being paraded away from the battlefield, looking more like French at Dienbienphi surrendering to the Vietnamese, than a modern war. The idea is to humiliate. Video shows anti-tank guided missiles being used against Oshkosh armored vehicles.
People that follow open source videos are feasting on the details now, noting that the vehicles constitute US and Canadian-made vehicles among others, including LAV-25s, Oshkosh M-ATV, STREIT Group Spartans, KADDB Al-Wahsh and M-113s. Accounts such as @RedIntelPanda tried to geolocate the location near Najran. Some accounts totaled up the destroyed vehicles, coming up with 17 that were shown burned and destroyed. Harry Boone writes “Yemen Houthis captured two M163s VADS (Vulcan Air Defense System) M113s fitted with 20mm Gatling gun.”
Again, it’s not entirely clear if all the photos are from this incident. The sheer number of destroyed vehicles shown on videos cannot be hidden for long if it all happened in one day. The overall cost of all these vehicles would run into the millions of dollars, in an already expensive war. But the real cost is in public perception and morale. And this is the goal of Iran and its allies. Iran wants to show that the western-supplied powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, can be beaten. The September 14 attack was one high-profile attack, after two other long-range attacks had been launched in the past six months. The Najran attacks, and the frequent drone and missile attacks on Abha in southern Saudi Arabia is designed to do the same. It is about taking the war to Saudi Arabia and asserting the power of Iranian technology and Iranian advisors. If the Houthis are doing all this themselves they may be the strongest group of infantry since the Spartans. But they aren’t. They are the foot soldiers and Iranian technology has helped them become a formidable fighting force, able to withstand four years of siege and battle against not only Riyadh but also its allies.
There is no reason the Houthis should have been able to accomplish this, but there was no reason the Vietminh should have outdone the French inn 1954. But they did. Iran’s Press TV and other stations that are pro-Iranian allies, such Al-Masirah in Yemen, Al-Manar, Al-Mayadeen, and Fars News are the tip of the media war to portray Saudi Arabia and incapable. For policymakers in the West that once relied on Riyadh as a pillar of policy in the region there are many questions now being raised. This includes why an armored column was so easily mauled or why cruise missiles and drones so easily outwitted radar in the Kingdom and struck Abqaiq. For many years the Middle East was called a “test bed” for western and Soviet weapons systems, but today that war is between western weapons and Iranian weapons, some of them modified on Russian or North Korean or other models. The goal of Iran is to show that its system can dismantle an army that has billions of dollars in its war chest. Once again Iran’s allies have shown that. Allies of the US should take note.