Marib escalation in Yemen is final Houthi push against government

Ansar Allah effort to isolate the Yemeni city of Marib, conquer the governorate is in preparation for coming negotiations, experts say.

Houthi supporters shout slogans during a rally against the United States' designation of Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, in Sanaa, Yemen January 25, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)
Houthi supporters shout slogans during a rally against the United States' designation of Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, in Sanaa, Yemen January 25, 2021
The Houthis have intensified their attacks on the city of Marib and the surrounding gas- and oil-rich governorate in recent weeks. The fighters have pressed onward despite international condemnation of the attack on the governorate, home to about one million displaced Yemenis. Experts explain that the Shiite movement is hoping to strengthen its position in the expected peace negotiations. 
Ansar Allah, or the Houthi movement, the Shiite rebel organization in Yemen, has intensified its attack on the governorate of Marib in recent weeks. The northern governorate is a strategic area rich in oil and gas, and the last stronghold of the internationally recognized government in northern Yemen. 
“Casualties are in the thousands, but nobody’s announcing anything,” Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen, told The Media Line. Al-Iryani explained that “this is the final push by the Houthis to lay siege on Marib, Marib city.” He believes that the Houthis will avoid entering the city, which is full of people that have fled from them and would therefore be hostile to the organization. He estimates that they instead will go around the city and “cut off the road to Saudi Arabia and to the rest of the country.”
The Yemeni Civil War broke out in 2014 and its central conflict is between the internationally recognized government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the Iran-backed Shiite movement Ansar Allah, which claims to be Yemen’s official government. The war has brought a dire humanitarian crisis to the country; millions of Yemenis have been displaced and the United Nations humanitarian aid agency UNICEF has termed the situation “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”
The attack on Marib is concurrent with an American and international effort to resolve the Yemeni conflict by diplomatic means. The Biden Administration has removed Ansar Allah’s designation as a terrorist organization and recently declared the cessation of its support for the Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi’s government. The White House also named a new special envoy for Yemen, as part of its efforts to push for peace. UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, recently visited Iran for the same purpose.
Al-Iryani, however, does not see an immediate connection between recent efforts and the attack on Marib. The Houthis have been preparing for the current attack since the middle of 2019, he said, adding that it had nothing to do with the new US government’s decision to revoke the terrorist designation.
The expert explained that the attack is the result of a long-time trend in the conflict. The internationally recognized government “has been losing the credibility and, therefore, legitimacy over the past few years, especially because of its total dereliction of responsibility” in leaving Yemeni citizens to starve while government officials accumulate huge sums of money and live comfortably in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, “the Houthis have been keeping their control over all manners of state power, and people are coming to recognize [them] as the de facto authority, so it’s normal … they will go for the final blow to the government, and that’s what is happening.”
Mihai Sebastian Chihaia, a Middle East political and security affairs expert from the Brussels-based European Policy Center, does see a connection between recent US policy and the current offensive. “The offensive on Marib is nothing new, it has been happening for quite some time, but now there is a new momentum for the Houthis to take Marib,” he told The Media Line, a sense of momentum deriving from the US removing its support for the coalition opposing them.
Chihaia explained why Marib is of such great importance for the warring factions. The governorate, which is relatively close to the Saudi border, has been a quiet refuge in recent years. The stability the area has enjoyed has made it into a symbol, Chihaia says, so conquering it will have “a symbolic importance.” In addition, Marib is also very important economically “because of the oil and gas resources.”
Speaking to Al Masirah TV, a channel founded and owned by Ansar Allah, the Shiite movement’s spokesperson, Muhammad Abd al-Salam, on February 24 explained the offensive saying that “what is happening in Marib isn’t a spur of the moment.” The spokesperson said that the coalition has used the governorate as a base from which to launch attacks “on Sana’a and al-Jawf and al-Bayda,” and international condemnations of the attacks are asking Ansar Allah to “not defend ourselves.”
Both experts, however, tied the offensive to expected peace negotiations, rather than the requirements of war. Chihaia believes that “what will happen next is that there will be peace talks and they will be third-party-mediated peace talks,” possibly with Omani mediation. The Houthis, he reiterates, would like to capture Marib and its oil and gas fields for increased leverage during the talks.
Al-Iryani explained that “one objective of the attack on Marib for the Houthis is to force the Saudis to negotiate directly with them and cut off the internationally recognized government.”
Taking possession of Marib will probably force the Saudis to negotiate with the Houthis, he said, and thus in a way recognize the movement’s claim “that they are the government in Yemen and that Saudi Arabia should negotiate with us.” However, if that isn’t achieved and “negotiations do not commence after Marib is cut off, then the Houthis will go into the south, [and] maybe into Saudi Arabia.”