Fall of Marib to Houthis Could Mean Victory for Iranian Proxies
Saudi ceasefire proposal rejected as new COVID-19 case is reported
On April 5, Iranian-backed Houthis struck at the Safer’s Oil field in Yemen’s Sirwah district, a disputed area between government forces and Houthi rebels in Marib province. This attack came a day after intense fighting between Houthis and Saudi-led Arab Coalition-backed government forces left more than 100 fighters dead according to figures provided by the combatants.
Regardless of the actual numbers of lives lost, this is a new turn of events whereby Yemen’s six-year-long armed conflict is escalating into territories that were relatively stable, at least up until the early days of 2020. The last few months have witnessed intensified clashes after the government launched an offensive against Houthis in Nihm area near Sana’a governorate, to which Houthis retaliated by attacking a mosque inside a military base in Marib on January 18 killing more than 100 people. Houthis eventually regained control over Nihm and advanced towards Al-Jawf and then Marib. Over 7,000 civilians were displaced because of the renewed clashes.
In a joint news conference on March 7 with Marib Governor Sultan Al-Aradah, United Nations special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths urged the warring parties to reconsider committing to peace talks. The response came soon through a tweet from Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam demanding an end to the Arab Coalition strikes and a lifting of the siege on airports before any talk of political solutions.
On April 9, Saudi Arabia announced a temporary and unilateral ceasefire – a two-week hiatus that would include a halt to land, air and naval-based military activity by all members of the Saudi-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates and the internationally-recognized government of President Hadi. But by April 10, the Houthis had rejected the Saudi initiative, spelling business-as-usual for the Iranian proxies.
By mid-March, the Houthis had seized control of Al-Hazm, the capital of Al-Jawf governorate, on the Saudi border and north of the currently embattled governorate of Marib. It is also said that some tribal leaders of Marib were already showing signs of aligning with the Houthis, considering them the winning side, according to the Houthi media Al-Masirah. As their military tactic dictates, the Houthis consolidated their capture of Nihm and then used it as a base to attack Al-Jawf, from which they will move on to Marib if everything goes according to plan.
Up until the end of last year, Al Hazm was under the control of the government. Since last month, Houthis have taken control and are now heading for Marib. (Courtesy Political Geography Now, Yemen Control Map & Report – October 2019 – Political Geography Now)
All of this fighting was ongoing despite proclaimed interest by both government and rebels in preparing for an onslaught of COVID-19 the country, which is already suffering from unprecedented health crises and a fragile healthcare system. Some measures were carried out in both government and Houthi controlled areas including a temporary lockdown on flights, suspension of schools, and social distancing. The first case, a Yemeni woman just back from a trip to Saudi Arabia, was reported on April 5 and the first case in Hadramount was discovered on April 10.
In the backdrop of the armed conflict, new displacement of thousands of civilians, the COVID-19 endemic, and long-standing urgent humanitarian needs, 2020 presents itself to Yemenis as a devastating one. A look into possible scenarios of the conflict indicates prolongation and further escalation of the conflict.
Marib, which lies 173 kilometers east of Sana’a, is an important heritage and economic region and is also the only successfully functional region under the government’s control. Marib is home to the government’s air and military bases. The fall of Marib would represent a significant blow to [internationally-recognized President] Hadi’s government as well as to political parties opposing the Houthis, especially the Islah. Since the governorate is known for its strong tribal nature and abundance of arms, taking over the area is likely to take months if not years, leading to further destruction of infrastructure and repeated displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. It also tips the balance in favor of secession as the embattled government control over Aden will diminish by extension.
Shawqi Al-Qadhi, a member of parliament and human rights activist, told The Media Line that “it would be a disaster if the Houthis did in fact prevail and take over Marib, [where] they are using children as soldiers and do not mind the high death toll in return for their political gains. The Houthis do not believe in sharing of power, but if they do prevail I know that Yemenis will not accept them and will rise against them.”
Moreover, if Marib falls into the hands of the Houthis, they gain a strategic advantage as they control oil resources and are able to loop around government troops in Taiz and surrounding areas, curtailing the coalition’s ability to attack, and tightening its control over Hodeida port to eventually controlling the entire north. This is very bad news for all Yemenis who are likely to come under the Houthi regime because of its military and authoritarian nature and oppression of freedoms: especially women and journalists. On April 5, the Houthis launched missiles on a women’s prison in Taiz killing six women and a child in what is seen as an example of what is to come.
A picture from inside Taiz women’s prisons where one of the Houthi missiles targeted, killing six women and one girl visiting her mother on Sunday. (©Ahmed Sadeq Al-Shikh)
The loss of Marib would mean the war is lost and the Houthis have won, Yemeni conflict and security analyst Nadwa Al-Dawsari explained to The Media Line. “Marib is the last stronghold of the Yemeni government and probably the area that is most stable and home to more than 800,000 IDPs, many of whom have fled Houthi prosecution. If Houthis take over Marib, they will destabilize [it while] hundreds of thousands would be vulnerable to displacement and Houthi atrocities including executions, abductions, and destruction of homes and infrastructure. They will take revenge against all those who oppose them, including tribal leaders. This will exaggerate the humanitarian situation and lead to a return of violence which will have consequences for all of Yemen. If Houthis take over Marib it means they will have won this war and if they do you can kiss goodbye to any potential for peace in the future.”
Another possible scenario being addressed is to have the Saudi-led Arab Coalition and Yemeni government step up their game and launch a brutal offensive to capture Hodeida port, cutting-off important financial revenues, and thus leaving the Houthis financially vulnerable. For this to happen, Hadi’s government and its loyal forces and supporters have to work out the fragmentation in their military strategy and keep the momentum going and move promptly without delay. Equally important, Hadi and his management need to strengthen their communication with the forces on the ground winning their trust, especially through adequate payment of soldiers and armed combatants. This is very important considering the plummeting oil prices and the fact that KSA, the main financer of the anti-Houthi offensive, needs to refocus resources within its borders.
If that takes place, it would encourage tribal factions and undecided forces in northern areas to side with the government, forcing the Houthis to surrender and participate in serious political peace talks. Otherwise, as long as the Houthis have the upper hand on the ground and Hadi’s government continues to lack popular support, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is bound to get worse. Having the Houthis strengthen their control over governorates bordering the largest exporters of oil in the world poses a risk to the global economy.
This would be a failure not only of the Yemeni government and the Arab Coalition but also the United Nations and the many Secretary General’s envoys, undermining by that the role the international body plays in mediating conflicts and chipping away at the UN Security Council’s legitimacy. On the global level, it would also signal a victory to an Iranian ally and encourage rebellious groups in the region, especially those with a religious agenda, to discard international laws replacing politics with guns in a winner takes all mentality.
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* Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf is a Yemeni researcher and advocacy expert. She was the first female information minister in Yemen, was involved in Yemen’s political transition process and, for nearly ten years, was chief editor of the Yemen Times. Al-Sakkaf is the recipient of many international awards, such as the Business for Peace Foundation Award and the Gebran Tueni Award. She was also celebrated as one of the WEF’s Young Global Leaders and one of BBC’s 100 Women who changed the world.