Houthi Escalation in Yemen: Why Now?


Tue, 28-03-2023 12:06 AM, Aden Time

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24)

Despite international and regional efforts to find a permanent solution to the ceasefire in Yemen, the Houthi militia met these efforts with a military escalation over the past days, targeting sites belonging to the pro-government forces in the districts of Harib and Markha in the governorates of Marib and Shabwa.

This represents the most violent escalation since the end of the UN-brokered truce on the second of last October, and the entry of the country into a state of "truce de facto."

Last Saturday, the convoy of the Yemeni Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Mohsen Al-Daari, and the Governor of Taiz Nabil Shamsan, and a military point on the Al-Kadha road leading to the city of Taiz, were attacked by drones, which resulted in deaths and injuries. Government officials accused the Houthi militia of carrying the attack.

Military sources told "South24 Center": "The convoy of the Minister of Defense was planning to head towards the city of Taiz on Saturday morning, before changing its destination to Bab Al-Mandab, after Houthi reconnaissance drones flew as it set off from Mocha." Later, the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, and the Saudi Major General Sultan Al-Baqami were shown inspecting the forces stationed in Bab Al-Mandab and Mayyun Island.

To the east, the Houthis are seeking, through escalation on the Harib fronts in Marib, to control this region. Due to its strategic location, which mediates three governorates (Marib, Al-Bayda, and Shabwa). 

The Houthis previously controlled the three districts of Beihan [Ain, Beihan and Usaylan] of Shabwa governorate twice. The first in March 2015 and the last in September 2021, before the Southern Giants Forces, with the support of the Shabwa Defense Forces and the Arab Coalition, liberated those areas, in early January 2022.

Harib district represents the easiest way for the Houthi militia to reach the city of Marib and the gas-rich desert areas surrounding it, and the Houthis seeks to be an important economic tributary for it.

Military expert Colonel Waddah Al-Oubali told "South24 Center" that the "Houthis views oil resources as an important economic and financial resource, and wants to harness the revenues of these resources to enhance its military capabilities, in addition to being an important file that it will use for political pressure in the negotiation process."

The Yemeni journalist residing in Sanaa, Saleh Jalal, told "South24 Center": "The Houthis' control of Harib will facilitate controlling Marib".

Until last Friday, the Houthi militia took control of the "Wadhu" and "Al-Bawara" mountains, before losing them in a counter-attack by the forces of the Saba military axis and the Giants Forces. The Houthis bombed the densely populated "Sharq" area with heavy and medium weapons. Last Thursday, the Houthi bombing caused the displacement of dozens of families from the conflict areas.

Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani considered "the Houthis escalation on the fronts west of Harib district in Marib governorate, and the accompanying missile and artillery bombardment of villages, reveals the Houthis' disregard for calm efforts and the restoration of the humanitarian truce".

The head of the STC Foreign Affairs Mohammad Al-Ghaithi commented on these developments: "We will preserve the gains of the Southern Hurricane operation, and the Houthi militia will only face more defeats". 

Al-Ghaithi, who is also the head of the Consultation and Reconciliation Commission, added, "I do not think that the international community needs additional evidence of these practices more than it needs the ability to take serious decisions". 

Field developments

The Houthi escalation coincided with visits and meetings conducted by top officials of the Yemeni Ministry of Defense and Saudi officials to a number of military fronts and axes.

On Monday evening, Major General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi chaired a joint military meeting in Aden, which included the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, a delegation from the Arab Coalition forces, and Southern military and security commanders. 

Last Friday, the Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Mohsen Al-Daari, the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Sagheer bin Aziz, and the Commander of the Backup and Support Forces of the Arab Coalition, the Saudi Major General Sultan Al-Baqami, inspected some units of the joint forces on the West Coast.

On March 24, Yemen's Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) member, Brigadier General Tariq Saleh, chaired a joint military meeting in Mocha, which included the Minister of Defense, Saudi commanders and commanders of Joint and Giant forces.

On March 23, the STC President also received a delegation in Aden from the Arab Coalition's Joint Forces Command headed by Major General Sultan Al-Baqami.

This was preceded by meetings and visits by the Minister of Defense and the Saudi delegation to Abyan, Aden and Socotra.

Military expert Al-Oubali said: "Field information indicates that the Houthi escalation is still continuing with great momentum on the front west of Harib, south of Marib," noting that "the area of Houthi escalation has expanded to reach Upper Markha district in Shabwa, which the Houthis began attacking from the Masora district of Al-Bayda governorate last Saturday morning."

Colonel Al-Oubali believes that "the importance of this geography [Harib and Beihan] lies in the fact that it is of great importance for securing the Houthi forces stationed in southern Marib, which are being prepared to head towards oil-rich Safer area".

In this regard, the Yemeni journalist, Saleh Jalal, claims that Houthis' quest to control Harib region is likely to be a prelude to "imposing a solution based on North and South, given that Harib is a border area with Shabwa".

However, Jalal believes that the Houthis will consider "returning to South again under the slogan of war on the American and British military bases".

Time selection

On March 10, a tripartite statement issued by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China stated that an agreement had been reached to end the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and lead to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Political parties believe that this agreement will cast a shadow over the file of the crisis in Yemen, and it is also expected to affect the Houthis' conditions for renewing the collapsed truce in Yemen, which all international and regional efforts failed to revive during past months.

The Houthis were keen to show that the Yemeni file is not linked to the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in an attempt to show the independence of their decision from Tehran. However, over the past months, Saudi Arabia has held secret bilateral talks with them in Sanaa, Riyadh, and Muscat.

In response, the STC said in remarks reported by CNN that Saudi Arabia had "isolated all relevant stakeholders from these talks."

The former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, revealed in an interview with France 24 English, that direct talks between the Kingdom and the Houthis preceded the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran.

The Houthi escalation comes after the announcement of an agreement on the exchange of prisoners between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in Geneva, which stipulated the release of hundreds of prisoners from both sides. It is scheduled to start implementation on the 20th of Ramadan.

Al-Oubali believes that "there is a Houthi investment in the timing that coincided with the interval between the signing of the Beijing agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the date set for implementing the first phases of this agreement."

Journalist Saleh Jalal does not disagree about the implications of this timing, which seems to be related to the Saudi-Iranian agreement, but he believes that it may be linked from two different points of view.

"Either there is a Saudi-Iranian understanding on the Houthis' complete control of North Yemen, or there is Houthi's keenness to prove that these understandings do not affect their military plans, and that they're not affiliated with Iran," Jalal said.

Simultaneous threat 

On March 22, the Houthis, through their Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Atefi, threatened the Saudi-led Coalition to target sea ports if the restrictions imposed on the port of Hodeidah were not lifted.

The threats of the Houthi official came at a time when the port of Hodeidah witnessed the largest flow of ships since the start of the conflict in Yemen.

Despite this, Al-Atefi said: "We will not accept imperfect positions and stifle the economy, so we reiterate our advice that we will not accept the continuation of the blockade of our ports. We are forced to adopt the port-for-port equation if necessary […]".

Al-Oubali believes that the Houthi threats and the field escalation are "a linked process, and that the Houthis are heading for a multifaceted and multi-level escalation."

On the other hand, journalist Jalal Saleh does not believe that Al-Atefi's threats are related to escalation. However, he saw that "the military advance towards South is a general goal for the Houthis, with or without justification".

Threatening peace efforts

The recent Houthi escalations - as it seems - complicate peace efforts in Yemen, and reaching any agreements that ease the impact of the war, which entered its ninth year last Sunday.

On Sunday, the Yemen's PLC said in a statement: "The war escalation of the Houthi militia reflects its hostile approach to peace efforts."

On the same day, the United States, France and Britain condemned the recent Houthi attacks in Taiz, Marib and Shabwa. The embassies of these countries called on the Houthis to "renounce violence, negotiate, and commit to true peace in Yemen."

"The Houthi escalation threatens the entire peace process." Al-Oubali said.

Journalist Saleh Jalal told "South24 Center": "When a serious peace comes close to achieving some goals, the Houthis fabricate something to hinder it, because it is in their interest to fuel the war."

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

HouthisYemenSouth YemenHaribMaribShabwaArab Coalition