Jamestown Institute: The Houthis' retention of areas west of Shabwa facilitates the overthrow of Marib

English - الأحد 10 أكتوبر 2021 الساعة 10:28 ص
NewsYemen, special translation:

After a brief lull in the fighting, the Houthi rebels are closer than ever to the vicinity of the city of Ma'rib. The city, which is the capital of the governorate of the same name, is also the de facto capital of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The governorate is also home to much of Yemen's oil and gas infrastructure, and its fall will cement the Houthis' control of northwest Yemen.

The Houthi leadership understands that it must take over the Ma’rib governorate if it is to control northwest Yemen and ensure its future economic viability. The fall of Marib will also further delegitimize the Yemeni government, both domestically and internationally. For these reasons, the Houthis launched multiple attacks in Marib.

The most recent large-scale offensive began in early 2021. The Houthis made significant gains as their forces advanced into the western and southern suburbs of Marib. In late February, the Houthis then sent a raid team to storm a prison in Marib and release its detainees imprisoned in Yemeni government prisons.

In response to this attack, Saudi Arabia escalated its air strikes and intervened to ensure more aid was provided to tribal elements allied with government forces. Due to the fierce resistance of the Ubaidah tribesmen, the Houthis failed to encircle the city of Ma'rib. Houthi forces also faced accompanying attacks from Yemeni forces and tribes, and tribes from Al Bayda Governorate. These attacks targeted Houthi supply lines to the newly captured positions south of Marib. Despite these repelled attacks and a shortage of soldiers, the Houthis still consolidated their control over a large part of the new territory around the city of Marib they captured.

After the Houthi offensive stopped in early 2021, their leadership moved to secure Al Bayda Governorate, located south of Marib. Al-Bayda is also a cornerstone of Yemen because it is located in the center of Yemen where it is bordered by eight other governorates. However, whitespace is as difficult to secure as it is important. The Houthis have launched several attacks in al-Bayda over the past five years, but they have failed to make any gains.

Starting in April 2021, the Houthis redoubled their efforts to control most of al-Bayda. By the middle of summer 2021, they had largely succeeded in establishing functional control over much of al-Bayda. This control is largely dependent on the agreements the Houthis have made with tribal sheikhs and other local elites. The Houthis always take a two-track approach when on the offensive: negotiations with local stakeholders precede military operations, and if negotiations fail initially, those negotiations continue along with military operations.

Negotiated settlements aimed at engaging local stakeholders are central to the Houthi strategy in much of northwest Yemen. Agreements with stakeholders are a force multiplier for the Houthis. It deploys negotiating teams before military operations, and these teams offer financial incentives, influence, and even weapons to local elites if they agree not to fight the Houthis. Moreover, the Houthi group uses its intelligence wing to gather incriminating evidence (real or fabricated) on individual elites. The targets are forced to make deals with the Houthis.

In short, the Houthi group is trying to expose its enemies from within before it takes kinetic military action. This is the approach I have taken in many areas of Al Bayda with notable successes. The Houthis now control most of al-Bayda. Most importantly, it eliminated the threat posed by its forces operating in southern Marib. This allowed the Houthis to launch attacks in the gas-rich Shabwa governorate, east of Marib.

Tightening the noose around the city of Ma'rib

 In September, Houthi forces began operations in western Shabwa. Control of Shabwa, which, like Marib, is home to critical energy infrastructure, is currently divided between forces loyal to Hadi and those loyal to the Southern Transitional Council. The Houthis benefit greatly from these rivalries, which alienated many Shabwa elites.

If the Houthi group retains western Shabwa, it will be able to impede the supply lines of government forces and protect its forces by maneuvering in locations southeast of the city of Ma'rib. The move to Shabwa was also designed to protect Houthi supply lines that now run through northern al-Bayda and southern Marib. The supply lines run through complex terrain that makes it difficult for the Saudi Air Force to target Houthi convoys.

The Houthis realize that capturing Marib will be military and politically costly. Thus, the Houthis are likely to encircle the city. Such a move would increase the embarrassment of the legitimate government forces while still leaving them to manage the humanitarian crisis that would result from a partial or complete encirclement. The city of Ma'rib and its outlying settlements are home to at least one million internally displaced people. The cordon will also limit damage to the city and its infrastructure. If the city is taken by force, the Houthis will lose the opportunity to gain the trust of local elites on their side.

 a future vision

Saudi Arabia is once again trying to help legitimate government forces and allied tribes by increasing air support and funding. However, air support and funding are not enough to prevent the Houthis from gaining ground.

At best, an increase in airstrikes may force the Houthis to slow their offensive. The return on increases in funding for the legitimate government and Islamist tribesmen is marginal. Ironically, it is the Houthis who often benefit from the funds, as tribesmen purchase goods and materials from brokers and traders affiliated with the Houthis.

 The Jamestown Institute of American Intelligence

Michael Horton is a senior analyst at the Jamestown Institute specializing in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula