Outlook into the Political and Military Scene After the Downfall of Marib


Wed, 03-11-2021 09:18 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed / Ayad Qassem

The fierce fighting continues around the city of Marib, the last bastion of the internationally-recognized Hadi government. The Houthis are still tightening their grip in order to fully control the oil and gas-rich governorate.

Marib is located northeast of the capital Sana'a which is 173 km away from it. Since early February, Marib has been under the microscope of military conflict as the battles have intensified. It has witnessed daily fighting scenes involving the "National Army", affiliated with the Hadi government, the KSA-backed tribal force and the Iran-backed Houthis.

The coming weeks, if not the next few days, will be pivotal in the course of the conflict, especially that the Houthis won battles in many areas such as the Obeida and Juba districts, and are heading toward Al-Balaq Mountains (Jabal Al- Balaq). Military experts expect battles of attrition in Al-Balaq especially that these mountains act as a natural barrier to defend the city of Marib which is just 15 km away.

Undoubtedly, this basically depends on the local forces' capabilities and the intensity of their military operations in the face of the Houthi militias coming from the bottom of the mountains.

Therefore, it will be a decisive battle. It is not clear whether the Islah-controlled forces, affiliated with the government, will resist or hand over the fronts to the Houthis as part of an internal deal like they did before in several fronts in Marib, Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda and Shabwa.

Observers attributed such handover operations to prior understandings between the Houthis and top leaders in the forces affiliated with the government in order to intensify pressure on the fronts run by the STC in Abyan and Dhale for destabilizing Aden's security. (1)

Meanwhile, the local tribes in Marib fighted alone without real military support from the National Army". For example, the army has stopped short of providing any support for "Murad'' Tribes in the southern front of Jabal Murad "Murad Mountain (Rahbah, Al- Qathah, Al-Kula) for more than one year. The tribes have urged the government and its affiliated army to support them but in vain. Brigadier General Murad Turik, Adviser to the Staff of the National Army, who belongs to Murad Tribes, accused the Islah of hijacking the so-called "legitimacy" and of paltering the army and military ranks. He added that the failure of the army and the tribes was due to the existence of Houthi-affiliated cells inside the Hadi government. (2)

Obviously, the accusations by the tribesmen against the Marib's local authority of submission to the Islah, as well as the party's attempts to separate between them have fueled the feelings of suspicion and animosity in some of these tribes. It is the same scenario that repeats itself regarding the Shabwa’s local authority led by Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo.

Moreover, some observers look at the latest statement issued by the political powers in Marib as a step to disclaim responsibility and to justify handing over Marib to the Houthis. The parties and political powers in Marib accused the “legitimacy” leaders of blatant failure in implementing their responsibilities at the political, military, economy, media and all levels, and criticized what they called “mismanagement” by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition. (3)

The positions of each party

The Houthi position

Practically, the Houthi entry to Marib would change the equation of the Yemeni crisis politically and militarily, as well as determining the fate of the UN-sponsored settlement according to the battle outcome. Although the Marib’s downfall into the Houthi hands would enlarge their fighting appetite to control more areas, the Houthis could select another unexpected path towards a political settlement. This deduction comes in light of their previous attitudes by employing the political operation and its unapplied results as part of their expansionist military tactics as shown in the Stockholm Agreement.

Accordingly, it is likely that the Houthis, after the downfall of Marib, will resort to negotiating with the internationally-recognized Hadi government as being the weakest party in the equation. The negotiation mechanisms will not lead to a bilateral formula but the Houthis will dictate their proposals that suit them as being the strongest party after winning the Marib battle.

Naturally, most observers agree that the Houthi takeover of Marib would change the game rules politically and militarily, but the most important question is how this will happen, and what will it produce?

The Houthis’ approach to a political settlement if they seize Marib will secure for them the condition of alienating the STC away from the settlement, and to limit this on the defeated party “the legitimate government” in violation of the Riyadh Agreement.

Consequently, the Houthis will likely reach a quick settlement with the “legitimacy” run by the Islah party, and stop fighting the STC as a temporary military strategy so as to cook their political settlement and to reach a shared-formula with the Islah for a political solution that “legitimize” the Houthi political and military presence in a way that suits them under a new international cover and recognition. The “former legitimacy” will be ready to accept this settlement, as being the defeated party in the battle. The settlement formula will not exclude it completely from the political scene, but it will secure its survival, even a marginal way, as part of a new legitimacy dominated by the Houthis.

In light of this vision, observers believe that achieving a political settlement by the Houthis will not be for the sake of peace, but to enhance themselves politically and militarily for engaging in future battles related to geographic areas in South after their control over most of North Yemen. Additionally, they want to penetrate other Shabwa districts, particularly, those close to oil and gas for making more economic gains, along with their share of Safer oil fields in Marib, which are the biggest in Yemen.

It can be said that the Houthi expansionist motives after the political settlement will be further strengthened after their takeover of Marib as they will secure an international recognition that has largely obstructed their project over the past years. Moreover, this will enable them to secure the negation of the legal base for the Arab Coalition, especially the KSA, to intervene and provide air cover in Yemen against the Houthi expansionist ambitions.

As for the local tribes in Marib, they will likely surrender to the Houthi pressure in light of the big casualties they paid during the last battles.

The Saudi position

In spite of the military and logistic support provided by the Arab Coalition to the Hadi government, the army, affiliated with the government, has been unable to achieve any field achievement. Its frequent retreat constituted an unprecedented setback, and a source of huge embarrassment to the KSA after handing over areas and weapons, provided by the Coalition, to the Houthis without any resistance. 

It can be said that the Saudi options in Yemen became limited. Therefore, Riyadh won’t have available alternatives to deal with one party at the expense of another after the downfall of Marib. The Saudi subsequent attitude towards the “National Army” run by Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar will put it in a narrow escape, as it won’t be able to continue supporting these forces that endangered its strategic interests in favor of other regional states (Turkey and Iran). On the other hand, the KSA won’t be safe from possible threatening operations against its southern borders.

In the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia in both cases faces possible threats. Therefore, Riyadh seeks now to reach understandings with Iran, the main Houthi backer, hoping to lessen the security threats emanating from the Houthi control over its southern borders areas, in addition to Riyadh's desire to neutralize the risks of the group’s air strikes. Hence, the KSA’s full withdrawal from Shabwa, and the partial one from Al-Mahrah came in light of these understandings according to observers. 

The Emirati position

On the other hand, the latest UAE withdrawal from Shabwa, particularly from Al-Alam Camp, and the reports about its possible withdrawals from Balhaf oil facility along the Arabian Sea, are seen as a kind of disclaiming the responsibility in case of the Houthis make deep expansion in Shabwa, especially in light of the frequent threats it has received from the governorate’s local authority, led by the Islah party.

However, the UAE is unlikely to abandon its allies in the liberated areas, suggesting it will keep backing them without direct involvement, and may provide the political and logistic cover for them to stop the Houthi expansion towards the Southern districts, run by the STC, and the Western Coast, run by the Joint Forces.

The UAE will likely follow an approach to end its military involvement in Yemen amid the developments of Marib downfall. Even if Abu Dhabi continues backing its allies, this won’t exceed the political support by which it will secure its presence in the Gulf of Aden and the coasts of Bab Al-Mandab Strait, which acts as Strategic maritime choke point. 

The STC position

Currently, according to military experts, (4) the STC will unlikely open a fighting front in Shabwa governorate, as it doesn’t want to enter into a military trap in light of the convergence of interests between the Islah party and the Houthis. However, the STC could enhance the locations of its forces, especially those adjacent to the forces affiliated with Islah. Simultaneously, the STC could resort to the intervention strategy in the governorate, in light of the local interactions inside Shabwa, and the maturity of objective helpful circumstances without repeating the August 2019 mistakes.

Additionally, the downfall of Marib could also impact the legitimacy of the governmental party within the Riyadh Agreement. It will lose all of its legitimate areas in North after the Houthi control of Al Jawf and Marib since signing the agreement in November 2019. This would put the STC in the face of several political challenges, along with the popular and military pressure emanating from these developments and their impact on the future of its strategic project of establishing an independent state in South Yemen. 

The STC will encounter decisive options to handle the military and political risks as a result of the downfall of Marib into the Houthi hands. However, they will be more complicated in light of the STC’s obligations with the governmental party within the Riyadh Agreement.

The downfall of Marib would justify the STC’s declaration of autonomy over areas under its control, and to begin military steps for controlling other South Yemen’s governorates. Although such a step could absolve its political and military obligations with the government, it would make the STC lose its legal legitimacy it gained by the agreement which enjoys international support. This could put the STC into a confrontation with the international community which still recognizes the Hadi government as a legitimate authority in Yemen.

Therefore, the nature of the relationship between the Houthis and the Hadi government after Marib downfall, as well as the nature of the emanating regional and international positions would determine some political paths that can be built upon. However, some observers believe that the STC has to contribute in creating and changing those tracks, being the most prominent power in South along with the Houthis in North, and not to wait for maturating the results. 

Experts don’t rule out attacks by both the Islah and the Houthis on the STC’s areas of influence. They could threaten the areas controlled by forces led by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of Former President in the Yemeni western coast. On Friday, Saleh called (5) the STC to “cooperate for drawing a new thing for the future”. The Latter welcomed (6) the invitation, showing its readiness to support the national resistance so as to liberate from the “Houthi militias” while stressing its political constants(establishing an independent state in South Yemen).

Possible scenarios

Based upon the above mentioned dates and possibilities, there are two probable scenarios after the downfall of Marib into the Houthi hands as follow:

The first scenario:  the Houthis will likely engage into a political settlement that secures stopping the Coalition's military operations, including the air strikes. Moreover, the Sana’a Airport will be opened unconditionally in return for ending the Houthi attacks against the KSA. 

Additionally, the Houthis will temporarily stop fighting the STC’s Southern Forces to pave the way for a mutual political settlement with the participation of the “former legitimacy” which will be under their control.

The second scenario: After the downfall of Marib, the Houthis will likely continue their advancement towards the Southern areas, especially the governorate of Shabwa and its districts close to the oil areas, and to complete controlling it in cooperation with the Islah Party which controls the decision making of the governorate’s local authority. The STC will Have to fight the Houthis to regain the governorate in case of the Islah’s withdrawal and handing over the whole governorate to the Iran-backed group.

The previous scenario could give the STC regional, popular and probably international support as part of the Riyadh Agreement’s path. It may turn the military scene upside down, and rearrange the plan to defeat the Houthis, starting from the Southern governorates. The Southerners proved, during the first years of “Operation Asifat Al-Hazm) great ability to defeat the Houthis in more than one area.

However, the first scenario could be more likely if the Houthis won’t risk engaging in more battles outside Marib before maturing the political settlement which could “legitimize” their authority. However, alienating the STC from this settlement could push the Council towards independent options and to involve in an open confrontation against both parties. 

On the other hand, the second scenario is more probable given the convergence of interests between the Islah party (the Muslim Brotherhood offspring in Yemen) and the Houthis in light of their joint expansionist targets towards South.

Accordingly, both scenarios constitute a big military and security threat against South Yemen. It has not been clear yet if the STC is fully prepared for such challenges and their possible consequences.

Farida Ahmed: Researcher on political affairs with South24 Center 
Ayad Qassem: Chairman of South24 Center for News Studies

- Photo: The military map around the city of Marib (Middle East wars)

Marib FallMaribNorth YemenHouthisYemen WarSouth YemenSTCUAESaudi Arabia