Do Yemen’s Houthis have their eye on Marib?

The Houthis’ stance in support of Palestine is gaining accolades, could they also be looking at a domestic win?

People supporting the Houthis hold a mockup rocket as they attend a rally against the U.S.-led strikes on Houthi targets and continued Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen January 26, 2024
Houthi supporters hold a mockup rocket at a rally against the US-led attacks on Yemen and continued Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen January 26, 2024 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – In the Red Sea, Yemen’s Houthi group continues to attack Israel-linked vessels in support of the people of Gaza, vowing to continue until Israel stops its relentless assault on the trapped population.

Internationally, the Red Sea attacks have grabbed headlines, not least for the dedication they demonstrate to the Palestinian cause and the Houthi willingness to take action.

“The Houthis aren’t going to stop what they’re doing, until the Israeli offensive in Gaza concludes,” Eurasia Group analyst Gregory Brew, told Al Jazeera.

Cementing their domestic presence

The Houthi rebel group, which took over the capital Sanaa in 2014, is still facing off against an internationally recognised Yemeni government represented by a Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) of Saudi and Emirati-backed forces.

Domestically, analysts believe the Houthis have their eyes on completing their control of a strategic location that could drastically expand their influence in Yemen and bolster their ambitions as a regional actor: Marib.

A region rich in natural resources, primarily oil and gas, Marib is about two hours east of Sanaa and strategically close to other oil-producing regions controlled by UAE-backed militias that oppose the Houthis.

In recent weeks, Yemen analysts have seen reports of the Houthis building up a troop presence near Marib, although to what extent is hard to determine, and that smaller clashes in the area have continued.

Marib is “one of the most strategically important points in Yemen”, Yemen analyst Nick Brumfield told Al Jazeera.

“If the Houthis are really trying to take it … they’re not only in a good position to try to take Marib, they have a perfect in into Shabwah, and splitting southern Yemen in two.”

In 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) unified with the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). While the country has been united since, some factions – including groups in the PLC – have strong secessionist ambitions for the south. Various tribes reign supreme in other areas.

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh once said governing Yemen was akin to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

‘A red line the Houthis cannot be allowed to cross’

“The Marib front is one of the fronts that flares up from time to time since the UN truce was declared in April 2022,” Faozi al-Goidi, a junior visiting fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

The Houthis already control about 12 of 14 districts in the Marib governorate. But the two most important districts, al-Wadi and Marib City, are controlled by the al-Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that is part of the internationally recognised government. Al-Wadi, in particular, contains an important oilfield that the Houthis want to control, analysts said.

“The Houthis are eager, if not desperate, to capture Marib’s oil resources and revenues,” Hannah Porter, an independent Yemen analyst, told Al Jazeera. “If the Houthis take Marib, then they would effectively control every important area of northern Yemen and they would become much more powerful economically.”

Supporters of the Houthi movement rally to denounce air strikes launched by the US. and Britain on Houthi targets, in Sanaa, Yemen January 12, 2024
Houthi supporters rally to denounce air raids by the US and UK on Yemen, in Sanaa, January 12, 2024 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

It is unclear if the Houthis are planning another offensive on Marib. They have tried to take Marib repeatedly in recent years, but each effort was repelled with high numbers of losses for Houthi forces.

“Marib has been seen as a red line that the Houthis cannot be allowed to cross,” Porter said.

Not only would taking Marib expand the Houthis’ economic capabilities, it would level a crippling blow to the internationally recognised government.

“⁠Should the Houthis succeed in fully capturing Marib, it will diminish the presence of the internationally recognised government and Islah to only a few small areas, namely Taiz and Wadi Hadramout,” said Raiman al-Hamdani, a Yemen researcher at the ARK Group.

“This will also erode the internationally recognised government’s credibility, negatively impacting their negotiation position as well as their local support.”

The Houthis and Saudi Arabia are currently engaging in ceasefire talks after a grinding civil war that lasted nearly a decade. Both have seemed committed to a deal, with analysts saying Houthis actions in the Red Sea and domestically are part of a strategy to negotiate better terms.

In recent months, the Houthis have benefitted from widespread recruitment campaigns thanks to the popularity of their attacks on vessels that they say are connected to Israel.

Analysts have said it is unclear if retaliatory US air raids or the attacks on US and UK warships have further drawn support to the Houthis, but the group has continued to turn out a crowd – in the millions, they claim – at Friday rallies. Many of these recruits joined to fight Israel, but the Houthis could use them to buttress their forces deployed in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have grown weary of militarily confronting the Houthis after entering the Yemeni civil war on the side of the internationally recognized government in 2015. For now, the Saudis seem committed to ceasefire negotiations with the Houthis since a truce was announced in April 2022.

“Saudi Arabia is determined to achieve calm and ceasefire in Yemen, but the events of the Al-Aqsa Flood operation and the Gaza war delayed the signing process,” al-Goidi said.

US/UK raids are ‘militarily useless’

While tension builds around a potential offensive in Marib, the Red Sea attacks have remained the international focal point.

Houthi forces announced on Wednesday that they fired several missiles at a US destroyer, the USS Greeley, and they would continue to attack US and UK warships in the Red Sea until the US-backed Israeli war on Gaza ends.

supporters of Yemen's Houthis wave a Palestinian flag
Houthi supporters wave a Palestinian flag during a protest against recent US-led attacks, near Sanaa, Yemen January 14, 2024 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The US and UK launched a series of air raids at Houthi targets in January, but their attempts at deterrence have had little effect as the Houthis continue to disrupt shipping traffic passing through the Red Sea that they say is connected to Israel.

“Most of the targets hit by the American raids are targets that have been bombed repeatedly over the years of the war, so they are militarily useless,” said al-Goidi.

“The only benefit [for the US] may be that some of the raids stopped or, let us say, reduced some of the Houthi group’s ballistic attacks on ships, as ballistic missile platforms were bombed before they were launched.

“As the US Department of Defense says, the rest of the raids have no effect on the ground,” al-Goidi said. “If America escalates its attacks, it may restart the Yemen war from scratch.”

Source: Al Jazeera