With the battle for Marib, Yemen is at a crossroads

A battle is going on for control of the vital city of Marib in Yemen. The nature of the engagement has also led to proposals of a ceasefire and behind-the-scenes talks. However, it is essential that the US not play a disruptive role

April 25, 2021 by Abdul Rahman
A displaced family in Marib: Photo: Xinhua

The last major bastion of the Saudi-backed Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi government’s forces in northern Yemen is facing a strong offensive from the Houthi forces since February. Control over Marib city, which is of strategic importance due to its oil and gas reserves, and is home to over 2 million people, will have a significant impact on the outcome of the six-year war in the country. On the one hand, the battle for control over the city will test the Joe Biden administration’s resolve to end American intervention. On the other hand, it also provides the Saudis an opportunity to end their devastating war in Yemen.

The significance of Marib

The Houthis want to control Marib due to its economic and political significance. In addition to its proximity to key oil and gas reserves, control over the city will be a blow to the already fragile legitimacy of Hadi and his Saudi backers. In the southern port city of Aden, the authority of the Hadi government has already been severely challenged by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces.

The fighting, which had escalated in the second week of April, has subsided a bit. Over 100 combatants were killed between April 10 and April 16. The battle has caused a fresh round of displacement as the city was already home to around 800,000 refugees living in camps.

The Saudi-led coalition has been able to maintain its control over the city only due to superior air power. The Saudi air force has launched hundreds of attacks at the Houthi frontline 19 miles from the Marib city center. This also reveals the extent of the vulnerability of its ground forces. The city is governed by Sultan al-Aradah who is a Hadi loyalist but enjoys his own local following.

This vulnerability is one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia proposed a ceasefire last month. This was rejected by the Houthis who are demanding a complete end to all air strikes, as well the end of all blockades before any ceasefire.

Biden’s dilemma

There are over a dozen countries in the Saudi-led coalition. However, the US, which is not directly involved, is its pillar of strength. Joe Biden has gone on record saying he wishes to end the US involvement in the war. However, he  has so far failed to give any concrete indication of the same. The administration announced the halt of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE shortly after coming to power in January. However, it did say it would continue to provide assistance for Saudi Arabia’s defense, and also allowed the sale of weapons to the UAE earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the US has doubled down on its rhetoric of painting the Houthis as mere proxies of Iran, ignoring the context of their battles against Hadi and his Saudi-led allies. Last week, the newly appointed US special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, termed the Iranian help to the Houthis as “significant and lethal” and questioned the independent standing of the Houthis. As in the past, he offered no evidence to support his claim.

In response, Iran reiterated its rejection of these claims, and pointed to the fact that the prolonging of the war in Yemen is due to continued US support through weapons sales and diplomatic backing to countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Tim Lenderking has called the Marib offensive “the single biggest threat to peace efforts,” a typical pro-Saudi and pro-Hadi pronouncement and yet another attempt to place the blame of the war solely on the shoulders of the Houthis.

The irony is that Lenderking was appointed by Biden to find ways to end the US involvement in the war. Instead, his claim in front of the US Congress that “70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia are in danger due to possible Houthi attacks” creates doubts about America’s real intentions as the Houthis’ fight is not against the US but against its continued support to interventionist forces in the region.

Positive signals

Despite Lenderking’s war mongering, there is a small ray of hope. Representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia are meeting in Baghdad for the first time in years to discuss the issues of Yemen. It is too early to expect results but if Saudi Arabia realizes its vulnerability and broadens last month’s proposals by agreeing to end its inhuman blockade of northern Yemen, there may yet be a chance for peace.

The six-year-long war in Yemen has devastated the country and according to the UN, has killed more than 233,000 people (including those who died due to starvation and lack of medicines) and displaced millions. Peace is essential to end the “largest humanitarian crisis of the century.” It can only be realized if the US desists from pursuing its narrow geopolitical interests and, as the Iranians have reiterated, leaves “the matter of finding a resolution to the senseless conflict in the capable hands of the regional countries”.