Battle of Marib could be nearing key point, affects Saudi Arabia, Iran

Marib is several hundred kilometers from the Saudi border but if the rebels take the city it will be a symbolic defeat.

A YEMENI government fighter fires at Houthi fighters in Marib, Yemen, March 28. (photo credit: ALI OWIDHA/ REUTERS)
A YEMENI government fighter fires at Houthi fighters in Marib, Yemen, March 28.
(photo credit: ALI OWIDHA/ REUTERS)

Iran and Saudi Arabia are watching closely as a key battle in Marib in Yemen reaches another potential turning point. More than two dozen people were reported killed this week by a Houthi rebel missile attack that struck a mosque and school. The Houthi rebels are backed by Iran. Iran has helped provide them support in missile and drone technology. 

Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen to stop the Houthis from taking over key cities like Aden. Since then Riyadh became bogged down in Yemen supporting the embattled government forces. The UAE, which had once played a role alongside Riyadh, now appears to have taken a different path in Yemen. What this means is that Riyadh could risk watching its Yemen allies lose a key battle on its doorstep in Marib in Yemen.  

Marib is several hundred kilometers from the Saudi border but if the rebels take the city it will be a symbolic defeat. We know it is important to Iran because Iran’s Tasnim media is highlighting the battle. The Houthis call this offensive the “spring of victory” and a long article explaining their tactics was published on Monday. The Houthi rebel spokesperson “said that Yemeni army forces, with the help of tribal forces, have carried out successful operations in the provinces of Ma'rib, Shabwa and al-Bayda,” Tasnim says. The Houthi “spokesman announced the liberation of an area of ​​1,100 square kilometers in the second phase of the Victory Spring liberation operation.”

The Houthis claim they are facing tough battles. They claim they had been hit by 159 Saudi Arabia air force air strikes. In turn they have carried out 86 operations against the “invading aircraft.” The Houthis claim their missile unit has also carried out 47 operations, 31 of which were inside the occupied territories of Yemen and 16 inside the depths of Saudi Arabia. They openly brag about attacking Saudi Arabia with a total of 141 operations involving Houthi drones. The Houthis acquired drones with Iranian technology. Some reports say Iran has even based drones in Yemen that can reach Israel and can attack tankers in the Gulf of Oman. In July a drone attacked a tanker, killing two people. Israel and the US blamed Iran for the attack.  

A man chants slogans as he and supporters of the Houthi movement attend a rally to celebrate following claims of military advances by the group near the borders with Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen October 4, 2019.MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI/REUTERSA man chants slogans as he and supporters of the Houthi movement attend a rally to celebrate following claims of military advances by the group near the borders with Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen October 4, 2019.MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI/REUTERS

The Houthis increasingly portray themselves as part of the Iranian alliance system in the region with Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. The Houthis have always been openly antisemitic, their slogan calls for “cursing the Jews.” The slogan is “God is Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” In the recent Tasnim report the Houthis claimed that they were fighting against the “aggressors and occupiers and mercenaries of Washington and Tel Aviv.” Clearly they believe their battle against Saudi Arabia is part of their overall war on Israel and the US. Marib is merely a stepping stone. 

The Houthi spokesperson said that their forces “were successful in liberating most areas of Ma'rib province and will continue their jihadist duties towards their people and country,” Iran’s Tasnim says. In recent fighting some 200 people have been killed. Now the Houthis are warning Marib’s defenders to stop fighting. “The Yemeni war is a complete defeat for the aggressors,” the report says. The Houthis say Saudi Arabia's war "criminal and barbaric.” They are now driving to complete the siege of Marib and try to strangle the city.  

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf have expelled Lebanon’s envoys and have slammed the Lebanese Information Minister who appeared to back the Houthis. The UAE has urged its citizens to leave Lebanon and has said its diplomats left the country. Riyadh wants Hezbollah to stop its slow takeover of Lebanon. Riyadh wants the Hezbollah presence reduced. Iran looks to want to pressure Saudi Arabia in Marib perhaps as part of a much larger ploy to strike at Saudi Arabia from Yemen as Riyadh tries to pressure Hezbollah in Lebanon. That means that Riyadh faces a regional agenda of Iranian threats stretching thousands of kilometers from Yemen via the Gulf of Oman to Kuwait and through Iraq and Albukamal and then through Syria to Lebanon. Israel also sees this arc of threats as a serious concern.