The Battle for Ma’rib: Insights and Outlook

Saturday 22 May 2021 / By Mutahar Alsofari
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Since February 2021, the Iranian-backed Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have besieged Ma’rib on several fronts. Despite warnings of a  looming humanitarian crisis for millions, clashes continue to move closer toward civilian communities, exacerbating the economic and political turmoil Yemen already faces. The Houthis have long prioritized territorial gains over humanitarian concerns, especially in Ma’rib where the economic and military advantages of controlling this city may shift the balance of power in Yemen’s conflict. Ma’rib’s strategic importance is enhanced by the city’s historic regional significance. Today, Ma’rib has become a pivotal arena in the conflict among the Yemeni government, the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

THE BATTLE FOR MA’RIB: CONTEXT AND CONNOTATIONS

The struggle for Ma’rib began with the Arab coalition intervention in March 2015. The city had resisted Houthi subjugation following the 2014 military coup and collapse of Yemeni state institutions.  

In February 2021, when the Houthis began their current assault on Ma’rib, the stalemate with the Saudi-led coalition and the declining role of the Yemeni government forces signaled imminent success for the militants in their bid to control the integral city. Externally, the Houthis benefitted from shifting U.S. policies, as the Biden-Harris administration increased pressure on Saudi Arabia and withdrew its support in the war in Yemen. Other U.S. policy developments including the  lifting of the foreign terrorist organization designation and the appointment of  Timothy Lenderking as the U.S special envoy to Yemen, further empowered the Houthis. Since then, efforts by Lenderking and UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to halt the siege on Ma’rib have arrived at a deadlock, indicating the declining influence of the international community in Yemen’s conflict.
 
The Houthis’ advance on Ma’rib illustrates not only the declining authority of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, but also the failure of the Saudi-led coalition to restore the Yemeni government’s control, its declared goal. Furthermore, the current assault on Ma’rib reveals the Houthis’ lack of interest in engaging in a settlement or political partnership with any Yemeni government affiliated bodies. As the Houthis consolidate control over the region, they  create new leverage and no longer need to make any compromises or halt their quest for territorial gains.
 
For five years, Ma’rib was an integral stronghold for the Yemeni government’s military operations to regain control of the capital city Sana’a. Today, a year of armed confrontations has transformed the strategic significance of Ma’rib, making it central to the projection of power to other governates.  

Iran and regional ally Hezbollah  differ in their treatment of the Houthis’ territorial ambitions. Iran’s Foreign Ministry insists the Iranian-Houthi relationship is purely political, but actions by Iranian officials indicate Iran’s direct entanglement in the military conflict. Brigadier-General Rostam Ghasemi (presidential candidate and economic deputy to the IRGC Commander-in-Chief) recently  announced Iran’s military support to the Houthis with the provision of equipment and a military advisors. Such declarations by Iranian leadership would corroborate the U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen’s  description of Iranian aid to the Houthis as “significant” and “lethal.” Meanwhile,  Hassan Nasrullah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah and key Iranian partner, has expressed concerns that the Houthi control of Ma’rib might hinder political and diplomatic efforts. These differences in strategic outlook have yet to fray the Iranian-Hezbollah relationship though they may indicate their lack of direct influence over actions taken by the Houthis.

Since the beginning of the Houthi attack in February, strong resistance in Ma’rib has frustrated any real territorial gains. Sources suggest there have been  hundreds of casualties, including high-ranking commanders, on both sides. Notably, the Yemeni Defense Ministry announced the death of the Director of the Officers’  Affairs Department, the Chief of Yemen's Military  Judiciary, and the Attorney General in addition to the  sixth district commander,  three commanders of the Special Forces, and other military personnel. On the Houthi side, the militia has reportedly suffered more than  3,000 casualties in 2021—mainly between March and April. 

A LOOK AHEAD

The outcome of the battle of Ma’rib will set the stage for Yemeni and regional engagement in the conflict.

THE HOUTHI MILITIA:

The Houthis have mobilized their full military might to win this battle. Sources suggest that the militia prepared for over  four months prior to the first attack in February, and have announced several times that they were able to break into Ma’rib. These plots have been advertised by Iranian news agency MEHR, with the publication of a piece titled  “Let's Fast Tomorrow in Ma’rib and Break Our Fast with its Dates,” referencing the militia’s plans to storm the city with the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Houthi militia recently  turned down a Saudi ceasefire offer, a failure for the peace process efforts that coincided with  Oman’s unsuccessful year-plus mediation efforts. Amid the faltering peace process, the Houthis’ argue Ma’rib represents only a part of Yemen’s conflict, but they will   continue to rely on the subjugation of Ma’rib to cement their international recognition as an authoritative power.

YEMENI GOVERNMENT FORCES:

Yemeni government forces have succeeded in defending Ma’rib with the help of local tribes, Arab coalition air-strikes, and military support from Shabwah and Abyan governorates. However,  reports indicate that confrontations have taken a huge toll on their military capacity and the government is in dire need of financial and military reinforcement. Though  the Governor of Ma’rib, Sultan Alarada insists that the city will not fall under the Houthi control, he has called for mass mobilization to stand up to the armed militia. 

The Yemeni government is reliant on the resilience of Ma’rib against Houthi attacks. As long as the Yemeni government remains present in the city, it will count its engagement in this theater as a victory, albeit not a grand one. The Yemeni government’s presence in Ma’rib is integral not only to its regional and international legitimacy but to dispel rhetoric about the Houthis’ invincibility.

SOUTHERN TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL:

The Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council represented by its Commander, Major General Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, views the Houthis’ advancement on Ma’rib as an  opportunity to accelerate talks between the north and south. Should the Houthis consolidate control over the city, they will then have control over the north with the Southern Council dominating the south. This would level the playing field between the Southern Council and the Houthis, justifying direct talks. This scenario might explain the Council’s stance on the Riyadh peace deal. 

YEMENI NATIONAL RESISTANCE:

The Yemeni National Resistance recently  announced the formation of a Political Bureau. This project by the Emirati-backed party, led by Brigadier-General Tareq Saleh (the nephew of Yemen’s late president Ali Abdullah Saleh), should be viewed as a maneuver to evade calls to merge its troops with the national Yemeni Army.

The Bureau’s recent announcement and its communications with the UN Special Envoy and diplomats in Yemen have not been well received by other pro-Yemeni government parties, who see it as the establishment of a competing power center. Meanwhile, the rise of the Yemeni National Resistance coincides with the  Yemeni government’s call to withdrawal from the  Stockholm Agreement due to the Houthis’ military escalation. 

Interactions among Yemeni parties remain highly fluid. Amid the battle for Ma’rib, the National Resistance  offered the Yemeni Defense Ministry military reinforcements on the west coast. Brigadier Tareq and his late uncle, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had maintained an alliance with the Houthis until they assassinated Saleh in December 2017. Tareq later moved to Aden, where he formed an agreement with the Transitional Council and initiated lines of communication with Saudi Arabia, with the help of the UAE. In light of these fluid relations, and the sustained centrality of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family to Yemeni politics, a number of parliamentarians—including participants in the 2011 protests—signed a petition in February 2021 urging the UN Security Council to  lift sanctions imposed on Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son, the former Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, where he currently resides. 

Amid the political turmoil in Yemen, the announcement of the National Resistance’s Political Bureau is an effort to achieve a political settlement based on current power dynamics among local armed groups and  interests of regional powers, at the expense of the Yemeni people. Furthermore, it encourages using coercion as a political tool. The declaration has little potential for success, especially given the continued emergence of new local powers from Yemen’s protracted conflict. The fluidity of these groups renders them unstable and highly dependent on external support. Their vague, constantly changing lines of authority are not representative of political, sectarian, or regional identities and they cannot not be trusted as viable peace partners.

PROTECTING MA’RIB IS A PRIORITY FOR PEACE

The Yemeni people observe clear differences between the international community’s firm position in 2018 and that of 2021. For many, the memory of UN efforts to impose the Stockholm agreement in the wake of the 2018 clashes near Hudaida remains fresh. Meanwhile today’s lax global response to violent attacks on Ma’rib, a region hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians who have fled Houthi violence only to find themselves under fire again, undermine international authority in resolving Yemen’s conflict. 

Stopping attacks on Ma’rib is the most fundamental step to protect civilians and rebuild Yemeni trust in the international community. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken  called on the international community to hold the Houthis accountable for resorting to an assault on Ma’rib to win the war, with its impending catastrophic humanitarian consequences. However, to build a successful peace process, the international community—and especially the United States— must change their approach to dealing with the Iranian-backed Houthis. Where containment and political enticement have failed, only the  strategic destruction of military capabilities can be effective. These steps alone will not stabilize Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition too must be accountable to facilitate the Yemeni government’s ability to run its own institutions and better serve the Yemeni people. 




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