Yemen: Fighting for the citadel

Haitham Nouri , Sunday 24 Oct 2021

Ongoing warfare in Marib, Al-Bayda, Shabwah and elsewhere in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, second only to the manmade famine caused by the Ethiopian government’s war in the Tigray.

Fighting for the citadel
Fighters loyal to Yemen s Saudi-backed government man a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country s northeastern province of Marib (photos: AFP)

According to Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham, more than 20 million Yemenis, or two-thirds of the population, need assistance from aid agencies.

Yet “aid is about to run out, again,” despaired a relief worker speaking on condition of anonymity.

In his briefing to the UN Security Council last week, Rajasingham said that 13 million people across the country were now receiving help from aid agencies. This is three million more than only a few months previously. The expansion has considerably reduced the immediate risk of large-scale famine. But Rajasingham also warned that between four and five million people could see their food aid reduced between now and the end of the year.

In Yemen hostilities have escalated since February, claiming hundreds of casualties on both sides: the Iranian-backed Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement and the internationally recognised government backed by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition to Support Legitimacy.

The Houthis have been fighting to regain control of Marib, from which they were expelled in 2017. If they succeed, the province would be their winning card in any peace negotiations in the country which has been ravaged by civil war since 2014. Marib is the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in northern Yemen.

The “largest citadel of the republic,” as the pro-government press describes the province, is also the centre of the country’s oil and liquified gas industry. Houthi control over it would deprive the government of an essential resource, severely debilitating its ability to resist.

The Houthis have lost nearly a thousand fighters since February, according to the Arab Coalition, which has sustained air attacks against the Houthi forces laying siege to Marib. “Were it not for the Arab Coalition’s support the Houthis would have taken both Marib and Shabwah long ago,” the former head of the South Yemeni Journalists Syndicate Najib Sadiq said.

Still, Houthi forces have made advances on several fronts. Houthi Military Spokesman Yahya Sarie recently announced on his Twitter account that the Ansarullah forces had gained 3,200 sq km in Marib and Shabwah. “Our forces managed to carry out Operation Spring of Victory, liberating the districts of Usaylan, Bayhan and Ain in Shabwah province, and the districts of Abdiya and Harib, as well as parts of the districts of Jubah and Jabal Murad in Marib,” he said.

He added that, in the course of fighting, the Houthi forces seized huge quantities of enemy arms, and wounded and captured hundreds of “Al-Qaeda and IS elements,” terms the Houthis use to refer to forces fighting for the Yemeni government.

Citing local Yemeni sources, the German press agency (DPA) reported that the Houthi forces have taken the whole of Abdiya and that inhabitants of that district now face dire humanitarian conditions due to the rights violations perpetrated by Houthi forces.

Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, have lost their lives during the recent Houthi offensives in Marib, Al-Bayda and Shabwah, according to Western media reports. The UN Organisation for Migration (IOM) has said that displacement of thousands of people from these provinces due to the fighting has aggravated the humanitarian situation in the country as a whole.

According to Najib Sadiq, in September the Houthis reoriented their strategy for taking over the capital city of Marib province, also called Marib. They are now focusing on the southern outskirts of the city. He added: “The fall of the districts in Marib and Shabwah was predictable because government forces did not have a strong presence in them. However, Marib, the capital district, is a different type of battle. Its calculations are much more complex.”

Sadiq is worried that Houthi forces might gain control of the Hadramawt-Shabwah road, the last main international supply line to Marib. If they do, the Houthi blockade will be complete and the province will fall.

“Whoever controls Marib controls the fate of the country,” said Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed. In remarks to the press during his visit to Cairo last week, he blamed the escalation in fighting in Yemen on Tehran. “The hardline government in Iran is pushing the Houthis to further violence,” he said.

Many believe that the Yemeni war is part of a larger regional war between Iran and the Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. Other arenas in this war have been Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Recently there has been a breakthrough in attempts to promote an entente between Tehran and Riyadh. During his recent visit to Beirut earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described talks between his country and Saudi Arabia as “positive” and “going in the right direction.”

On the other hand, Iran’s regional influence may be waning. In Syria, the balance is in favour of Russia which is unlikely to let Iran or other powers have a share in its gains there. In Iraq, pro-Iranian forces have suffered a political setback since the uprising in October last year, a development that was reflected in the collapse of their parliamentary bloc in the legislative elections on 10 October.

This should free Baghdad of dependence on Tehran and strengthen the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as a mediator in the rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh. Meanwhile, the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon has driven Beirut to Cairo for essential natural gas and energy supplies.

This naturally diminishes the influence of Tehran and its proxies in Lebanon. At the same time, that country’s economic straits hampers the ability of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its partners in government to act as they please, and weakens Tehran’s main ally in the region.

Still, the situation in Yemen is different. The Houthis’ adversaries are weaker militarily which puts them at a disadvantage in Mareb, the “citadel” that will determine the fate of war and peace in the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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