World, Middle East

Will Houthi offensive on Marib end soon?

Despite world opinion, Houthi rebels continuing their offensive on key city for establishing peace in Yemen

Mohammed Alragawi   | 05.06.2021
Will Houthi offensive on Marib end soon? FILE PHOTO


For the past four months, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen has made several calls on Houthi rebels to end their offensive on the city of Marib, but things have yet to change.

In his latest press conference on May 31 in the capital, Sana'a, Martin Griffiths again emphasized the perils of the ongoing attack on Marib, saying the continuation of military activities in several parts of the country, including Marib, is “undermining the prospects of peace in Yemen and puts the lives of millions at risk.”

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been mounting a major offensive on the city of Marib since February, aiming to seize control of the government’s last stronghold in the north of the country.

The fact that the Houthis continue to fight in Marib has become an increasing focus of international efforts and “condemnation from the United States, from the UN Security Council, from the P5 and from other international actors as well,” said Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, in a special briefing via telephone with the US Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub on May 21.

“The Houthis are completely isolated when it comes to the Marib offensive. They are against world opinion on this,” he added.

Marib hosts many state institutions including the Ministry of Defense, possesses the country's largest water, oil and gas reserves, and has the largest electrical station that supplies electricity to most parts of the country.

US Senator Chris Murphy, upon his return from a five-day tour of the Middle East accompanied by Lenderking and Griffiths, said on May 6 that the “Houthis must stop their assault on the city of Marib. If the Houthis enter Marib, a new humanitarian nightmare will ensue, as legions of Yemenis will flee the violence.”

No potential winner

The offensive in Marib is not going anywhere. During the past four months, the Houthis have rejected local and international calls to halt their deadly assault on the city.

Through their media outlets, the Houthis tried to promote the narrative that they were going to seize Marib during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (from April 13 to May 12) and break their fast inside the city.

“Marib, despite their predictions, did not fall during the month of Ramadan. It’s not falling now, and it’s not going to fall anytime in the foreseeable future,” Lenderking said.

With no accurate data on the death toll of Houthi fighters, the Saudi-led Arab coalition announced the killing of more than 700 Houthis in four days as a result of airstrikes and battles with Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces in February.

The Yemeni army also announced on Feb. 27 the killing of 350 Houthis in Marib in only 30 hours.

According to Houthi media outlets, 522 pro-Houthi fighters were killed during the month of Ramadan, which increased their death toll to 2,852 since the beginning of this year.

“The Houthis are not in a hurry to end the fighting in Marib. Rather, they plan to advance towards neighboring districts like Shabwa and Al-Bayda after taking control of Marib,” General Ahmed Garhash, a retired military expert, told Anadolu Agency.

Despite suffering a significant number of casualties, the areas under Houthi control enable them to have a large amount of manpower to recruit more fighters and continue the war.

Dr. Annelle Sheline, Middle East Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute, believes the Houthis did not halt their assault on Marib because they feel they are winning and have no incentive to stop their offensive now.

“The cease-fire proposals from the US and the Saudis both use UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as their framework, which stipulates that the Houthis must give up their weapons and territory they acquired since 2014. The Houthis have no incentive to engage with such unrealistic maximalist demands,” she told Anadolu Agency.

With potential talks ahead, the Houthis believe that taking control of Marib will make the negotiations work in their “greater favor to obtain the largest possible gains by increasing their influence on the ground,” Garhash said.

International efforts

In order to put more pressure on the Houthis and push them towards stopping their assault on Marib, the US on May 20 imposed sanctions on Muhammad Abd al-Karim al-Ghamari, the head of the general staff of the Houthi militia forces, who is leading the Houthi offensive on Marib, and also Yusuf al-Madani, a prominent leader of Houthi forces and the commander of the so-called fifth military zone, which includes Hudaydah.

Observers view this step as a sign of the international community’s dissatisfaction with the Houthis’ actions in Marib. However, these two Houthi leaders are “not influential in the Houthi movement, and the sanctions were supposed to include Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the supreme leader of the Houthi movement, or Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi, head of the Revolutionary Committee of the Houthis,” Garhash argued.

The Houthis have repeatedly demanded the lifting of the Saudi blockade on land and airports which prevents food and fuel from entering the country. They refuse to negotiate a cease-fire while the blockade remains in place.

Murphy supports the Houthis' demands, saying the Saudis “must end their blockade of key ports and the Sana’a airport,” and without the ability to freely import food, fuel and other goods, “Yemen's economy has come to a grinding halt, causing disease and starvation.”

However, if the import restrictions were lifted, “it's not at all assured that the Houthis would pause their assault on Marib,” Sheline argued.

Bilateral concessions required

The United Nations has been mediating negotiations for over a year between the warring parties to achieve a nationwide cease-fire, lift restrictions on the freedom of movement of people and commodities to and from Yemen, and relaunch the political process.

“I know how difficult a decision is to transition from wartime to peacetime, to demand the greatest concessions and sacrifice in leadership of the parties. It takes courage to move away from war and the suffering of war and to enter into the uncertainties of peace,” Griffiths said.

To end the fighting in Marib, Sheline thinks that the Saudis, as the main supporter of the Hadi government, either need to enhance their military commitment and provide the Yemeni military with adequate weaponry to be able to decisively push the Houthis back, or the Saudis need to give up and withdraw and allow the Houthis to take Marib, which will likely precipitate an even greater humanitarian crisis as many of the inhabitants will try to flee the Houthi takeover.

“If the Houthis end the Marib siege and the Saudis open up the ports, then a cease-fire, which could lead to a peace process, is possible,” Murphy tweeted.

But “if the Houthis are going to continue to obstruct, then it will be visible to the entire world which party is not favoring peace in Yemen,” Linderking said.

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