The Iran-backed Houthi assault on Marib not only threatens the UN-backed government’s last line of defense but also risks a dire humanitarian crisis.
In Yemen’s six-year-old war, Marib has been a refuge to hundreds of thousands of Yemenis fleeing the violence. The city is now under intense assault by Iran-backed Houthis - civilians in the city face a humanitarian catastrophe as the rebels intensify their assault.
The last stronghold
As a result of a power struggle since 2014, Houthi rebels managed to take control of the capital Sanaa and most of the north of the country. Marib remains the last stronghold of the internationally-recognised government based in the south. The city is located between Sadaa and Sanaa, both controlled by Houthis, and its fall would be a major hit to Yemen’s leadership that has been hoping to restore the government.
The city is vital to both parties since it’s one of the few in Yemen with oil and gas production. The Houthis have been eyeing the area since they seized Sanaa in 2014 and overthrew the UN-recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi the following year.
As the last line of defense for the government, around 80 percent of the population of the Marib governorate is made up of Sunnis, who are loyal to Saudi Arabia and the government.
While fighting to capture Marib, Iran-led Houthi rebels have been intensifying drone attacks into Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, backed by the US, Britain, and France, has endorsed the UN-recognised government since 2015. The UN and the US have been calling the Houthis to negotiate a settlement to the war, and capturing Marib could strengthen the rebels’ hand at the negotiation table.
The displacement of hundreds of thousands
The consequences of a major showdown by the Houthis are not only limited to a potential political defeat of the government. Urging Houthis to de-escalate, the UN warns that it could put two million civilians at risk in the country, which the UN defines as the world's largest humanitarian crisis.
More recently, Houthis have been targeting government-controlled displaced camps located in the east of Marib. Two of the four camps have now been completely evacuated.
According to the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM), fighting has displaced 106,449 people in the country. UN aid chief Mark Lowcock says the recent escalation could force thousands of more people to flee - with unimaginable humanitarian consequences.
Terrorist or not terrorist
In an effort to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, the new US administration notified Congress that it would lift the terrorist designation on the Houthis last week.
The move reverses former US President Donald Trump’s decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group days before leaving office, but the Biden government says Washington’s view of the Houthis remains the same.
"Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration,” a State Department representative said last Friday, adding that the US remains committed to helping Saudi Arabia against the rebels.
Aid groups in the country's north have to deal with the rebels to be able to assist the 30 million civilians living under Houthi control. Humanitarian organisations feared that Trump’s decision would create economic distress for civilians. Rebels who were cut off from financial support routed through the US due to their terrorist designation could then seize aid intended for civilians, The New York Times said.
Keeping the designation could also harm the efforts to bring the Houthis to the negotiation table, the Guardian quoted a resident of Sanaa saying. The rebel representatives failed to attend UN-brokered talks in September 2018.
Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam said in a tweet on Saturday that the rebels were fighting "only those militarily involved with the foreign enemy."
However, reacting to the assault almost a week after the decision to lift the designation on Houthis, the US called the rebels to cease operations if serious about a negotiated political solution.
"The Houthis’ assault on Marib is the action of a group not committed to peace or to ending the war afflicting the people of Yemen," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.