As international frustration mounts over the inability to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Yemen, the battle for control over Marib has emerged as a major stumbling block.
Much of the exasperation is directed at the Houthi rebels, who have so far refused to return to the negotiating table. “What we see is full-on determination by the Houthis to take Marib,” US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking told the Washington Post on Friday.
A Houthi victory in the oil-rich province would deliver a major defeat to the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Saudi-led Coalition that is backing its drive to regain control of the country.
Lenderking has recently returned from the Gulf, during which he met the UN special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg in Muscat and the resident Houthi delegation in the Omani capital. From the US envoy’s statements, it is clear that the talks made no progress.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan shares Lenderking’s prognosis, saying in a joint press conference with EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell on Sunday that Riyadh is in a “very strong dialogue” with Washington on how to end the war in Yemen.
He said that the main obstacle to a ceasefire was the ongoing Houthi military offensive against Marib and targets inside Saudi Arabia. Borrell said that “we know that Saudi Arabia is suffering attacks from ballistic missiles coming from Yemen, launched by the Houthis.” Alluding to Iran, he added that “it is certainly not they who are building these missiles, someone is providing them.”
The joint forces fighting for the internationally recognised government, which consist of the official Yemeni army and various contingents of Popular Resistance Forces, have claimed victories on various fronts in Jawf and Marib. However, military observers maintain that there has been no significant development that could enable either side to claim it has gained the upper hand.
The main strategy of the joint forces is to check any Houthi advance. A joint forces military communique recently reported the downing of a quadcopter drone in southern Marib, with military sources describing it as an Israeli aircraft of the sort used in the last war against Gaza. If this is the case, the Houthis’ deployment of the drone may signify their resolve to win the battle at all costs.
Hamas or Hizbullah militias may have captured such drones, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards may have cloned it, passing it on to the Houthis. This type of drone is thought to be superior to some of the Iranian-made aircraft used in Yemen because of its range, surveillance features and capacity for explosive charges.
The Washington Post article cited Sagheer Bin Aziz, chief of staff of the Yemeni army, as saying that ballistic missiles and drones were “the biggest problem” in the war. It said the interview had had to be interrupted when a Houthi drone was spotted overhead, forcing journalists and soldiers to scramble to a safe location.
The Houthis are increasingly seen as the “warlords of Sanaa,” ruling by fiat from the Yemeni capital and their militias enforcing the imposition of de facto realities. They reportedly rely on structures bequeathed by the former regime of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, with specially tailored additions to the security apparatus such as the “preemptive security agency” and special female security branches inspired by Iranian military divisions.
The situation in Southern Yemen seems equally intractable. Last week, the inhabitants of Aden were shaken by armed clashes near the central district of Crater. The accounts vary, but the common denominator is the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), the de facto authority in the South.
The STC blamed the disruption on Imam Ahmed Abdo Al-Silwi (aka Al-Nubi), whom they described as a “terrorist” bent on inciting strife. According to some reports, Al-Nubi’s militia is a breakaway contingent from the STC. Other sources, including Houthi ones, held that the fighting was an outbreak of longstanding tensions between the STC and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Reform Party (Al-Islah), which has a strong influence in Yemeni government ranks.
“It is not just the security that is deteriorating here. The greater problem is with standards of living and the deterioration of services to unprecedented levels,” a source in Aden told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that outbreaks of tension often occur when members of the officially recognised government return to Aden in the framework of the Saudi-sponsored agreement between the government and the STC, which has yet to be fully implemented.
Reports of a southward Houthi advance have aggravated tensions in the South. In response, the STC’s Security Belt forces released a statement affirming their readiness to counter any Houthi attempt to expand. Some sources have also reported that southern security forces have unearthed “sleeper cells” of Houthi militants in Abyan. Some weeks ago, Houthi forces drove back joint forces contingents in the Al-Bayda governorate, bringing them within closer reach of Aden.
Such developments reinforce the image of competing warlords with various fiefs in the north and south. According to some observers, even the Yemeni army is essentially cobbled together from heterogeneous militia and/or tribal forces that have defied attempts to integrate them effectively. As a result, the army lacks cohesion and appropriate training, which is why it does not live up to the expectations pinned on it despite the huge support it receives.
The Republican Guards under the command of Tarek Saleh, son of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a semi-autonomous force. Primarily based on the west coast, it refuses to subordinate itself to a command that accommodates the militias of the Al-Islah Party.
The eastern Hadhramawt governorate is stable by comparison, though this does not mean that the government has an automatic pass. The dominant influence in Hadhramawt is Saudi Arabia because of tribal overlaps. Despite the official accommodation between the official government and the STC, the trend in Hadhramawt is to reject any authority in Aden that includes the STC and to prefer autonomy.
There have been reports of a possible visit by the new UN envoy to Aden to bolster the government’s position in the country’s southern capital, according to sources speaking to the Weekly. Last week’s clashes may have thrown these plans into disarray.
Yemen is now at the bottom of the Global Peace Index, not surprisingly given the complex and long-entrenched dynamics of conflict in the country. It could be another candidate for “Somalisation,” in other words, the disintegration of the country into fiefs controlled by rival warlords.
There is no sign of a possible roadmap to a solution between the Houthis and the government. Even in the event of negotiations, the STC insists on having a place of its own at the negotiating table. A STC delegation made this clear during a visit to Germany last week, and in previous statements the STC has stressed its resolve to call for a referendum on the independence of the South after a five-year interim period.
The Houthis insist that any ceasefire agreement must be based on current lines of control even if these fall in the middle of a province such as Marib. Despite UN and US appeals and EU intimations that the Houthis have violated international law, none of these powers holds sufficient leverage to impose a halt to the war, meaning there is little to prevent a Somalisation scenario.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly