Battle for Yemen desert city now a key to Iran, US tension

Battle for Yemen desert city now a key to Iran, US tension

Houthi soldiers march during a funeral procession for Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting against government forces in Marib province, in Sanaa, Yemen, on February 17, 2021. Reuters file photo

Dubai, April 7

The battle for an ancient desert city in war-torn Yemen has become a key to understanding wider tensions now inflaming the Middle East and the challenges facing any efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to shift US troops out of the region.

Fighting has been raging in the mountains outside of Marib as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who hold Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, attempt to seize the city, which is crucial to the country’s energy supplies.

Saudi Arabia, which has led a military coalition since 2015 backing Sanaa’s exiled government, has launched airstrike after airstrike to blunt the Houthi advance toward Marib. The Houthis have retaliated with drone and missile attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia, roiling global oil markets.

The battle for Marib likely will determine the outline of any political settlement in Yemen’s second civil war since the 1990s. If seized by the Houthis, the rebels can press that advantage in negotiations and even continue further south. If Marib is held by Yemen’s internationally recognised government, it will save perhaps its only stronghold as secessionists challenge its authority elsewhere.

The fight is also squeezing a pressure point on the most powerful of America’s Gulf Arab allies and ensnarling any U.S. return to Iran’s nuclear deal. It’s even complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to slowly shift the longtime mass US military deployments to the Mideast to counter what it sees as the emerging threat of China and Russia.

Losing Marib would be “the final bullet in the head of the internationally recognised government”, said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “It will set the stage for the dismemberment of the Yemeni state. You’re looking at a generation of instability and humanitarian crisis. You also will look at a free-for-all theater for regional meddling.”

Located 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Sanaa, Marib sits on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter Desert at the foot of the Sarawat Mountains running along the Red Sea.

It’s believed to be the home of the biblical Queen of Sheba, who gave King Solomon riches of spices and gold. In the Quran, it was the site of massive flooding that accompanied the collapse of its ancient dam.

The disaster gripping the city today is entirely manmade. Over 800,000 refugees fleeing the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 and the war that followed swelled the city’s population, according to the UN refugee agency.

Taking Marib, or otherwise cutting it off, would represent a major prize for the Houthis. It is home to oil and gas fields that international firms including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA have interests.

Marib’s natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once provided 40 per cent of Yemen’s electricity. Marib’s modern dam is a key freshwater source for a parched nation, though it was never fully developed even in peacetime.

When Saudi Arabia entered Yemen’s war in 2015 on the side of its exiled government, the kingdom allied itself with the tribes of Marib, who long perceived Sanaa and the Houthis as disenfranchising them. Another major political power was Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party that is Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These disparate forces provided a lifeline for Yemen’s embattled exiled government, which already faces pressure from allied secessionists in the south.

For a while, beginning in the fall of 2019, Saudi Arabia reached a detente with the Houthis, said Ahmed Nagi, a non-resident Yemen expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Citing two Houthi officials familiar with the discussions, Nagi said a back channel agreement saw both the Saudis and the rebels refrain from attacking populated areas.

But when the Houthis began to push again into Marib, the Saudis resumed a heavy bombing campaign.     

For the Houthis, “they think they gain through war more than peace talks”, Nagi said. For the Saudis, “if they lose Marib, they’ll have zero cards on the negotiating table”. The escalating conflict around Marib coincides with major changes in US policy toward the war. President Donald Trump’s administration had declared the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organisation”, following a campaign by Saudi Arabia supporting the move.

Biden rescinded the Houthi terrorist designation after entering office. He also announced the US would halt support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive combat operations in Yemen, saying: “This war has to end”.     

But fighting around Marib has only escalated even as the Saudis recently offered a cease-fire deal. Iran’s frustration over the Biden administration’s failure to swiftly lift sanctions has contributed to “an intensification of attacks by groups in Iraq, and the same in Yemen”, said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an Iran scholar at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

 “Iran is trying to deliver a message to the US,” Tabrizi said. “A message that the status quo is not sustainable.”         

While experts debate how much control Iran exerts over the Houthis, the rebels increasingly launch bomb-laden drones previously linked to Tehran deep inside the kingdom.

Those attacks included a drone smashing into a parked commercial airliner and others targeting major oil facilities, temporarily shaking energy prices. — AP

 

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