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