Dimensions of the Gulf-Lebanese Crisis and the Prospects of Resolving the Marib Affair


Wed, 01-12-2021 03:11 PM, Aden

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24) 

The latest contexts of the Gulf-Lebanese crisis, and the accusations against Hezbollah of backing the Houthis, who are one of Iran's proxies, have reflected the nature of the pivot twist in the Yemen crisis track. The most likely is that the general context of this crisis prospects will depend on the main transformations of this file and the reconfiguration of power balances among the active parties such as the Houthis in North, and the STC in South, along with reservations about the position of the internationally-recognized government within the Yemeni map. 

However, there could be different regional calculations in light of the current field moves in Marib and the calculations of each of Iran, Lebanon and KSA regarding the odds of the Yemeni crisis.

Accordingly, several questions have been raised about the strategic importance of Marib, and which qualitative connotations and sub-contexts it carry related to the engagement of regional elements in managing the field scene given the dimensions of the Gulf-Lebanese qualitative crisis, in addition to the prospects and options for resolving the ongoing battle at the national, regional and international levels. This could be illustrated in detail by the following points:

First: The strategic importance of Marib:

The strategic importance of Marib varies according to the regulative context of the Yemeni crisis, along with the field and political agendas of the conflicting parties. This is directly reflected in the following points:

1- Political importance

The political importance of Marib is tied to a number of considerations:

- Reorganizing the headquarters of the internationally-recognized government after the Houthi control over Sana'a in 2005. This made Marib the "government's alternative headquarters" as it is the biggest city controlled by the "Hadi Government" compared with their fragile presence in Aden, the second biggest city in Yemen.

- The “geopolitical” dimension of Marib due to its strategic importance given its direct airline and its land ties with the KSA.

- After the field transformations of Sana'a in September 2014, and the Houthi Constitutional Declaration in February 2015, Marib has become a political, military and social incubator for the supporters of the internationally-recognized government, as being the only remaining coherent governorate and which, along with the Southern governorates, constitute a geographical and demographic matrix that acts as a blocking wall in front of the Houthi moves.

Noteworthy, the outcome of the "National Dialogue" divides the proposed Federal state into six political units (regions), in which Marib will be part of Sheba Region (1), along with the governorates of Al-Bayda and Al-Jawf. Moreover, Marib will be the capital of the proposed region, rendering it to be a political competitor of the capital Sana’a, given the spatial proximity between both, and the Marib’s richness of oil resources, electricity capacity as well as its historical position and the strong coherence in its tribal structure. 

2- Economic importance:

There are some economic pillars constituted by Marib and which lead to cement the weight of the region as illustrated in the following points: 

1- Marib is considered a trade hub between the areas controlled by the Houthis and KSA, Oman and other governorates. However, the increase in the operation scene caused a decline in the basic goods trade in Marib, which could lead to a humanitarian and food crisis, including civilians and those who are based in Houthi areas.

2- Marib Governorate gained a big economic importance due to the availability of oil and gas, along with producing electricity, by using gas, to supply Sana’a and a number of Northern governorates through Safer Power Plant which is currently out of service because of the existing conflict.

Over the last 5 years, the commercial activities in Marib made a boom, after it attracted the capitals, which has obviously impacted the real estate investments and the traded assets. This somewhat boosted the degree of trust towards the internationally-recognized government, but on the other hand, there is a noticeable fear from the investors as a result of the Houthi threats and their escalating attacks by missiles and drones against the military locations, in addition to advanced military moves towards Marib. 

3- Security importance

The security importance of Marib is impacted by the preferential feature imposed by the “geopolitical contexts” for managing the internal and external aspects of the conflicts. This is illustrated by the following points:

1- Marib is located at an intersection of the main road which connected the Southern governorates along the Gulf of Aden with Sana’a and the KSA. Therefore, it is considered as “a platform to launch decisive attacks”. Thus, to seize control over the rest of Marib would enable the Houthis to make rapid progress inside the oil-rich governorate of Shabwa and towards the main border crossing between Hadramout and KSA. The Houthis made advancement in Beihan districts in Shabwa on September 21st amid accusation against the forces affiliated with the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood) of handing it over to the Houthis.

2- Marib is an incubator for more than a million internally displaced persons. If those people begin a mass escape out of the city, they will cause a big refugee crisis in KSA, eastern South Yemen governorates and Oman.

It is worth mentioning that Marib obtain a special qualitative security importance, as it includes some military campuses, top of which is the Command and Control Center for the 3rd Military District which includes Marib and Shabwa. Moreover, the 7th Military Region Command is temporarily based in Marib instead of its main headquarters in Dhamar. Additionally, one of the Arab Coalition’s branches are based in the city as well as training centers for the Yemeni Army Forces and its various supply depots. 

Second: The Gulf-Lebanese crisis props:

There are some direct and indirect reasons that exacerbated the Saudi-Lebanese crisis at first, and the ensuing Gulf support of the KSA’s position. This evokes a number of various reflections related to the turmoil files in the region including the following points:

Direct props:
1- The repercussions of the Lebanese Minister of Information, George Kordahi’s statements about the Yemen War, and his position towards the Houthi field moves. They have been described as being based upon “narrow perspective” and lacked the evaluation of the existent political and military scene in Yemen among the parties involved inside.

2- The KSA’s smuggling drugs accusations against Lebanon. For example, the KSA government announced in April 2021 thwarting the smuggling of over 2 million drug tablets hidden among the Lebanese fruit shipments. In July 2021, KSA declared detecting more than 14 million drug tablets inside a shipment of iron plates coming from Lebanon. During the same month, Lebanon announced that it thwarted a new operation to smuggle Captagon pills to the Kingdom.

Indirect props:
1- The variable ramifications of the Hezbollah intervention in the Yemen political scene, and backing Houthi field moves, especially in Marib. The Saudi-Lebanese relationship has been lukewarm for years as a result of Hezbollah's domination over the political scene in Lebanon, as well as its overt involvement with the Iranian Axis. For example, the Saudi shift has become more clear since the election of General Michel Aoun who is an ally to Hezbollah. They managed during the last period to absorb the popular anger since 2019 in addition to the establishment of the Najib Mikati government which is deemed by the KSA as a hostage to Hezbollah.

2- The indirect interference into the Saudi-Iranian negotiation contexts. The negotiations have revealed a state of rift and incompatibility regarding a number of files. This pushed Iran, backed by Hezbollah to support the Houthi field moves in Yemen. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia sought to exploit the Lebanese Card to reduce Hezbollah’s hegemony over the map of the Houthi moves.  

It is noticeable that the Saudi-Iranian negotiations have not yet achieved a big progress, as the negotiators prepare for another tour. On the other hand, the Saudi pressure on Lebanon may be a part of its pressure on Iran to complete the negotiation sessions and put an end to the Houthi escalation in Yemen, especially in Marib.

Third: The resolution options:

It seems that the options of the field military moves to Marib from the southern and western directions does not reflect the Houthi preferences, especially when looking at their casualties, but in the first space, it is a way to escape from the field repercussions of moving through the Eastern Desert towards Marib. This has a direct impact on the geography of the operation development related to the movement map in Marib as follow: 

1- The battle strategy in Marib was based upon “the encirclement and siege” strategy by looking at three fronts that are almost adjacent to the Balak mountain range which constitutes the last natural line of defending the city. Those fronts include the Southern one, particularly Jubah and Harib districts which largely fell recently into the Houthi hands, in addition to the western front (Sirwah), and the northern western one (Raghwan and Medghal). The Houthis controlled large areas over the last two fronts, but they failed to score any progress through the upper direction of Balak from Al-Mashgah and Al-Kassarah since last February.

2- The Houthi latest field movements have been in the form of a “horseshoe” after controlling each of the Asilan district, belonging to Shabwa, in the south east of Marib, and Ruwaik in Jawf Governorate next to Marib (north east). Thus, the operation to encircle Marib has become from the direction of west and large sections from south and north, leaving the eastern front (Hadramout and some Shabwa northern districts) open with a vast and sprawling desert area that constitutes almost half of the area of Marib Governorate.

3- On the other hand, the eastern side is forming a blocking wall, as the desert constitutes a natural barrier against the Houthi advancement. Along the middle of it, the Marib- Abr (Hadramout) Road extends, which serves as a major and vital artery for Marib during the war. If the Houthis attempt to invade Marib from the east, or reach this vital road to complete encircling and besieging Marib, they will be in the crossfire of the Arab Coalition’s plans, and probably the forces affiliated with the government which are said to deploy over 40 military checkpoints along the Marib-Abr desert Road. (2)

It is worth mentioning that the Houthi moves towards encircling the area come primarily to seize the oil and liquefied natural gas fields in "Safer", a challenge that will only be accomplished by the downfall of Marib first. This illustrates the nature of the existent battle through a new wave of field moves in the Southern front “Harib and Jubah, with the possibility of suspending such moves based on the field experience in the western front (Al-Mashgah and Al-Kassarah). Questions remain about the possible odds of resolving the battle in Marib which fluctuate between 3 scenarios:

The first scenario: The regression of the Houthi moves

This scenario is based upon the hypothesis of “changing motives” as the complexities of the conflict in Marib as well as the deterioration of the Houthi economic situations amid the high population density in their regions and the lack of the economic resources. All those factors would push the Houthis towards negotiation and making political compromises which would provide them with a safe exit from the war in a way that maintains their previous gains.

The second scenario: The field indecisiveness

This scenario is based on the hypothesis of “no change in the power balances” along with the steadiness of the economic standard for both parties. This pushes for the continuation of the “hit and run” moves between the two parties involved in the military operation in Marib, in an exhaustive way for each. This could push both of them to negotiate for resolution. Such a negotiation step could lead to meeting the Houthi demands towards getting a share in the Marib oil resources, and ensuring that their supporters participate in the local governance of the city in return of stopping the war and lifting the siege. 

The third scenario: The downfall of Marib

Based on the available magnitude of field data, this scenario would end by the downfall of Marib into the Houthi's hands, and the different repercussions emanated from that, top of which is reducing any moves towards an imminent settlement operation, especially that the Houthis would enjoy a more powerful situation in North Yemen, being the strongest local military forces in the country without the need for a recognition from KSA and the regional and international forces. They won’t be under the brunt of any urgent economic pressure that pushes them towards settlement due to their control over the oil resources in Marib. 

Accordingly, the occurrence of the first or the second scenarios won’t be connected with any blatant ramifications on the path of the peaceful settlement whether by regional or international efforts. It is possible to move forward towards achieving the agenda of the fourth UN Envoy, which emerged in his direct messages in the first briefing.  However, in the event that the third scenario prevails, in which Marib falls into the Houthi grip, this will be related to a number of repercussions, which are considered a turning point towards redrawing the maps of the internal conflict and alliances in a different way in comparison with today. The most prominent among these repercussions are illustrated by the following points:

- Reproducing Sana’a scenario: as the Saudi-led Coalition will find difficulty in accepting the Houthi military control over Marib as a de- facto affair. This evokes the anti-Houthi moves in the wake of the Houthi control on Sana’a. Thus, the Saudi-led Coalition could seek to obstruct the political regional and international significance of the military downfall of Marib, to deprive the Houthis from turning their advancement into strategic, economic, political or diplomatic privileges, by harnessing tools that guarantee for them achieving the required effect. This includes closing Marib-Abr Road (Hadramout), making a diplomatic move to avoid regionalinternational recognition of the Houthi authority, in addition to continuing the aerial bombardment of military targets in and outside Marib whenever needed, and tightening the measures and restrictions that already exist with regard to the port of Al Hudaydah and Sana’a International Airport, in accordance with the internationally- recognized government.

- The escalation of the possibilities of internationalizing the conflict: the downfall of Marib will create a state of confusion in the regional countries and the international community about the political and security situation of the Houthis who are considered a non-state actor, but they control most of the Yemeni lands. This may prompt a redefinition of the “group.” As a threat to regional security and stability, especially if the "Vienna Talks" scheduled to resume at the end of November fail to eventually reach an agreement with Iran.

- The growing risk of security turmoil: It is possible that the Houthis will build on their victories in Marib, re-establishing their movements towards building advanced naval capabilities along with making a limited or large-scale expansionist activities, which may represent a qualitative threat in the southern Red Sea region and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

- The foggy situation of the internationally recognized government: There are two overlapping standards at this regard, the first is based on the repercussions of the fall of Marib in the hands of the Houthis, and its qualitative importance that reflects the decline of the internationally recognized government to the international community and the resulting new popular unrest against the Hadi Government as a reaction against the downfall of Marib. The second one is based on “legal legitimacy” and what is established by Security Council Resolution 2216.

Consequently, it seems that one of the Saudi-Gulf goals in the Lebanese crisis is the attempt to undermine the Houthi regional funding tools. This constitutes a main pillar for redrawing the field map at the level of military operations in Yemen, especially in light of the political and security dimensions related to the odds of “Marib downfall”, and consequently, there is a need for accelerating this matter to undermining and bury a number of ramification in case of the battle is resolved in favour of the Houthis, top of which are as follows: 

1- Complicating the task of the fourth UN Envoy to heal the rift and resume the work of political consultations between the Yemeni parties, due to the growing flaws in the internal balance of power in favor of the Houthis. Therefore, there is an imbalance in the papers presented for political bargaining between the Houthi parties and the others affiliated with the internationally-recognized government. If those regional backers push these local parties - through bargaining cards - for establishing the actual power balance on ground to prepare a balanced environment for the political consultations, those moves could ultimately sway from building of peace possibilities.  

2- Escalating the issues, “with regional dimensions” at the expense of the “nationallocal” issues, given the weakness of the local parties compared with their counterparts the “Houthis” in case of the Marib’s downfall. In fact, the success of the consultations between the Yemeni parties will be conditional on the regional moves emanating from the KSA’s efforts, first of which is making a breakthrough through reaching understandings with the Houthis directly, and second: getting involved with Iran on issues related to Saudi national security, and the impact of the Houthi-Iranian relationship on the security of the region. The third one is related to the future of regional influence in Yemen, given the moves of Hezbollah and their variable effects on the Houthi expansion in Yemeni lands.

Moreover, the prominence of the regional issues as the most essential affairs in the dispute could abort the settlement efforts in Yemen, especially those done by the United Nations, as they lack the frameworks and mechanisms required to solve the regional problems related to the Yemeni crisis. This needs rethinking towards the direction of finding a mechanism to hold a political regional-international conference about how to achieve the requirements of a peaceful political settlement in Yemen. 

Political science teacher, specialized in international relations and regional security. 
Photo: Houthi group raised a giant banner with the image of George Kordahi in a main street in the capital Sanaa, North Yemen (Reuters)

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