Houthis Military Escalation in Marib: Motivations, Consequences and Scenarios

EPC | 28 Feb 2021

The Houthis have launched a ferocious attack on the oil province of Marib, the last stronghold of the internationally-recognised government in the north of the country since the beginning of the second week of February 2021, in an escalation that is the largest and that comes immediately after the US announced their removal from the lists of foreign terrorist organisations, and in conjunction with a Washington-led diplomatic mobility and repeated European and United Nations (UN) calls to stop the military escalation and move towards a comprehensive political solution to the Yemeni crisis.

This paper sheds light on the most important motives for the Houthi attack on Marib, and the messages that the group wishes to convey to the international community and its opponents and allies alike, and explores the repercussions of this escalation for the Yemeni crisis and the peace process, and possible scenarios.

The Motives

The Houthi group is seeking from its major attack on Marib at this timing to achieve some goals and send some messages as follows:

  • Benefitting from changing climates in Western attitudes and motivating them to demonstrate good intentions. While the Houthi group has welcomed the announced approach of the new US administration regarding support for peace efforts and an end to the war in Yemen, especially stopping its support for the Arab Coalition’s military campaign and removing the group from the list of terrorism, and has also welcomed the recent European position that was announced on 11 February 2021, the Houthi group, through its repeated assertion that “no statements, no matter how positive they are, would be meaningful without practical steps on the ground” (according to a tweet by the group’s official spokesman Mohammad Abdul Salam on Twitter on 13 February 2021), not only questions the seriousness of those positions, but also urges them to exert more pressure on the Arab Coalition, and sets as a condition for proving good intentions that Western stances and moves lead to pushing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its allies to take the initiative first and declare the end of the air strikes and lifting the blockade imposed on the group, including lifting the ban on commercial flights to Sanaa International Airport and the abolition of restrictions on the entry of ships of oil derivatives, as well as other confidence-building measures such as disbursing salaries of employees and others. While these demands are the same conditions that were included in the comprehensive Houthi plan for a solution that was presented to the UN envoy Martin Griffiths in 2020, there is a clear rise in the ceiling of those demands. The Houthis are pressing militarily in Marib and towards the KSA in a clear show of force, not only because they believe that showing any positive signs on their part would be misjudged in a way that weakens their position in any future negotiations, or to consolidate their gains in advance of those negotiations, but also to hint that they are in a comfortable position whereby they can set the conditions for negotiation, and that they are not in a hurry if their conditions are not accepted.
  • Sending messages to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition that the group has no intention of making concessions of any kind, and that it is continuing to consolidate its influence and expand inside the country, especially in the direction of Marib because of its special importance to the KSA. In addition to the repercussions of the Houthis' escalation and growing influence in the north for the security of the KSA, their intensification of attacks on it with drones and ballistic missiles, in conjunction with the resumption of their attack on Marib, indicates that they aim to pressure Riyadh to make it more enthusiastic about the ceasefire plan. More importantly, however, they are more determined to achieve a strategic goal in their war with the KSA, which is to prevent its air force from supporting government forces and anti-Houthi tribesmen, especially that the KSA air force plays a major role in stopping the advance of Houthi fighters to control the oil city.
  • Providing assurances to the Iranian ally and the so-called "Resistance Axis". Some observers say that the Iranian agenda is the first motive behind the escalation by the Houthi group, especially at this time when there is a Western diplomatic movement and Gulf response and support to stop the war and reach a comprehensive political settlement that takes into account the minimum aspirations of Yemenis and in consultation with the various actors. Rather than interacting positively, responsibly and promisingly with the calls for peace, the leaders of the Houthi group are dragged towards continuing to play the role of "proxy", given that the present circumstance in which interests may diverge (if the Houthis accept peace in isolation from Iran's thorny issues) constitutes a test and an opportunity for the Houthis to prove to Tehran that they have favoured its priorities and its broader project at the expense of their limited interests and ambitions, as well as the interests of the Yemeni people. This is evidenced by the Houthi leaders’ keenness to identify with the logic of the recently appointed Iranian ambassador to the group Hassan Erlo who considered that the new change in US policy on the Yemeni crisis “is attributable to the US endeavour to impose a military presence and a direct political presence” in Yemen. For example, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the unrecognised Houthi government Hisham Sharaf, upon his meeting with Erlo on 13 February 2021, affirmed that his group shall continue with its escalation, saying that “Sanaa is able and ready to use its capabilities to make the ports and airports of the capitals of the aggression coalition experience part of the consequences of the suffering endured by the Yemeni people”, as he put it.
  • Clamping down on the group's local opponents in the legitimate government and its allies. Considering the importance of Marib as the last stonghold of the Legitimacy in the north, a military and social centre of gravity for the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen (the Islah (Reform) Party), and a springboard for threatening Sanaa, the Houthi military escalation towards Marib depletes the capacities of their opponents and exhausts their war effort. The Houthis' estimates suggest that their opponents have become in a clear state of weakness, and that it is possible to strip them of the most important cards of their strength. The Houthi’s control of Marib (if it does happen) would deal a devastating blow to President Hadi’s government and its alliances, in addition to allowing the Houthis to improve their negotiating terms and impose their dictates on any form of political solution, enabling them also to lay their hands on an important part of the country's oil and gas.
  • Benefiting from domestic enthusiasm to make gains on the ground. The Houthis interpret the shift in US foreign policy regarding the Yemeni crisis as a desire for the return of the "World’s Policeman" to play a greater role in the region from the gate of Yemen, under the pretext of playing a "questionable" role, which is the neutral mediator to support political efforts and end the war in this country. For them, Washington's position constitutes an admission of the failure of its previous policies as a main supporter and participant in the war against the Houthis, as well as a recognition by it of the impossibility of bypassing them and of the need to negotiate with them. They attribute this to their capability to show resilience and to impose themselves as a de facto authority in North Yemen. They also see the welcoming of calls for peace by their opponents in the Arab Coalition and the legitimate government as a tone of weakness, surrender, and a desire to get out of the dilemma of war. This is marketed by the group as a victory for it, through which it works to amplify the enthusiasm of its fighters, and bets on their drive to consolidate its gains and settle matters in its favour, especially in Marib.

The repercussions

This Houthi escalation threatens to undermine peace efforts and the Washington-led diplomatic movement that has emerged recently. It makes the issue of the war in Yemen contingent on the regional tensions more than ever before. It also exacerbates the lack of trust between the parties to the Yemeni conflict. The failure of the round of talks on the exchange of prisoners that was recently hosted in the Jordanian capital Amman (between 24 January and 21 February 2021) under the auspices of the UN indicates that there is a state of total blockage in the de-escalation efforts that the UN is seeking to establish in the hope of clearing the way for the peace process. Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity for this escalation to push the international community to intensify its pressure on the parties to the conflict, especially the Houthi group, including moving towards developing a plan for a comprehensive solution and imposing it through the UN Security Council (UNSC).

At the military level, some opinions view the Houthis’ attack on Marib as an indication of their efforts to complete the demarcation of the separatist borders and to extend their control over northern Yemen (in its borders before 1990). However, what is certain is that if the Houthis manage to take control of Marib, they will change the dynamics of the entire conflict. While this is more valuable to them than any political settlement they can currently obtain, they will likely not stop there, nor will they accept engaging in a comprehensive peace process and a long-term national reconciliation plan, in addition to accepting to limit their influence, without a major military defeat inflicted on them, even after a while. On the ground, the military escalation on the Marib fronts may extend to the other fronts, especially the southern and western coast fronts. The Houthis will also double their attacks on the KSA, which means that the war may flare up more than it was in the past two years.

In addition to the above, this escalation causes a lot of security concern to the citizens, impedes the movement of travellers and impedes the passage of trade between the governorate and the neighbouring governorates, especially Sanaa, and thus exacerbates the economic crises and the deteriorating living situation in the country.

At the humanitarian and social level, this escalation endangers the lives of more than two million people, and threatens the occurrence of a wave of displacement that may be the largest since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, especially that Marib houses dozens of camps and has constituted a haven for hundreds of thousands of displaced people who were displaced by the Houthis from the areas that the Houthis have subjected to their control in the past, in addition to the obstacles and challenges that the escalation poses to the humanitarian organisations and relief teams working there. Besides, the current escalation is expected to exacerbate the state of fragmentation in the social fabric. For example, the Houthis seek to disrupt the cohesion of the tribes in the areas surrounding Marib by buying the loyalties of some and mobilising them against the others which are opposed to the Houthis. This threatens to undermine the relative stability that the governorate has enjoyed over the past years.

Possible scenarios

So far, there are two possible scenarios for the military escalation in Marib, one of which is the Houthi’s decisive win of the battle, and the second is the continuation of the escalation with a varying pace from time to time and without bringing about a decisive change in the control map, that is the stalemate scenario.

1. The Houthis decide the battle in their favour. This scenario assumes that the aforementioned motives and incentives would fuel the enthusiasm of the Houthis to continue with the same momentum in their attack on Marib. Indeed, Iran’s tendency to link the Yemeni conflict to its faltering files may by itself be capable of making the Houthis raise the pace of their escalation and throw their full weight in an attempt to resolve the battle in their favour. Such a scenario could materialise in cases including the weakness of the defence plans of the Houthi opponents, and the ability of the Houthis to create imbalances in the ranks of their opponents or take advantage of them and exacerbate them, including inflicting heavy strikes on the command centres of their operations and formations, cutting off their main supply lines in the south or north-east of Marib, and the disruption of air support by coalition forces.

2. The stalemate. This scenario assumes the continuation of the escalation, with varying paces from time to time, without bringing about a real change in the map of control on the ground. The materialisation of this scenario requires the cohesion of the opponents of the Houthi group and their desperate defence of the city, the intensification by the Saudi air force of its strikes, and the bet on the time element to exhaust the group's fighters, deplete their morale and curb their drive. Despite the great motives and the development of the Houthis’ offensive strategy, their options may be regressing and facing the same previous obstacles. This explains their resort to the method of enticing tribes, army personnel, and residents of Marib, by offering a set of undertakings and guarantees such as “pardoning them and not prosecuting them or prejudicing their properties and interests, maintaining their jobs, enabling them to manage the affairs of the province, and allocating 70 percent of the net proceeds of Safer to its benefit”.

Overall, the available data indicate that the chances that the second scenario would materialise are higher in the near term. Despite the importance of the military settlement of the Battle of Marib, given that it is decisive and vital for all parties, this is exactly what may delay the military settlement therein and make it come second, especially that the battle comes against the backdrop of an international diplomatic movement and within the framework of the political arrangements led by the new US administration at the Yemeni and regional levels, even if this means that it would take longer before any understandings about Yemen mature.

Conclusion

  • The Houthis are putting pressure on Marib Governorate in a clear show of force, after the US announced their removal from the lists of foreign terrorist organisations, and in conjunction with a Washington-led diplomatic movement and repeated European and UN calls to stop the military escalation and proceed towards a comprehensive political solution to the Yemeni crisis. This military escalation by the Houthis comes not only because they believe that showing any positive signs on their part would be misjudged in a way that would weaken their position in any future negotiations, or to enhance their gains in advance of those negotiations, but also to hint that they have become in a comfortable position whereby they can set the conditions for negotiation, and are not in a hurry if their conditions are not accepted.
  • The Houthis are sending messages to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition to the effect that they do not have the intention to make concessions of any kind, and that they are continuing to consolidate their influence and expand inside the country. On the other hand, by attacking Marib, the Houthis provide assurances to the Iranian ally. Rather than interacting positively, responsibly and promisingly with calls for peace, the leaders of the Houthi group are being dragged into continuing to play the role of "proxy", given that this circumstance in which interests may diverge constitutes a test and an opportunity for the Houthis to demonstrate to Tehran that they favour its priorities and its broader project at the expense of Yemen and its interests.
  • So far, there are two possible scenarios for the military escalation in Marib, one of which is the Houthi’s settlement of the battle in their favour, and the second is the continuation of the escalation with a varying pace from time to time and without bringing about a decisive change in the map of control, that is the stalemate scenario. The available data indicate that the second scenario has more chances of materialising in the near term.

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