Marib city, a government-controlled island of stability, sits in the crosshairs of the unfolding conflict
Analysis: ‘Unprecedented’ escalation east of Sana’a signals potential shift in Yemen war
Throughout the latter halfof January, clashes between government and Houthi forces have raged across frontlines between Houthi-controlled Sana’a city and government-controlled Marib city. The fighting, spanning Marib and Al-Jawf governorates and the Nihm district of Sana’a, represents the most significant military escalation between government and Houthi forces since December 2017, when the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh precipitated a shift in several frontlines, namely in Shabwa and Hodeidah governorates.
As a result of the December 2018 Sweden Consultations, the latest peace talks convened by the UN Special Envoy, the only major shifting frontline – on the outskirts of Hodeidah city – was largely static. Throughout 2019, while deadly clashes persisted across the country, the frontlines remained largely entrenched between the Houthis and government forces, with the latter being preoccupied with an armed coup in Aden by UAE-funded separatist and security forces rallying behind the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
A purported drawdown by Emirati forces increased Saudi Arabia’s footprint in the south and west coast of Yemen, and Saudi Arabia mediated a deal between the Yemeni government and STC to incorporate the latter’s allied forces into a reshuffled government and restructured military and security apparatuses. At the same time, since September 2019 Saudi Arabia has been engaged in talks through Omani intermediaries, which appear to have resulted in an undeclared ceasefire along the Yemen-Saudi border and overall reduction in hostilities at other frontlines.
On Jan. 16 of this year, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths briefed the UN Security Council on the reduction in hostilities, saying “we are surely, and I hope this is true and I hope it will remain so, witnessing one of the quietest periods of this conflict.” With the three UN-mediated agreements reached in the Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 – on Hodeidah, Taiz, and prisoner exchanges – stalled or outright collapsed, Envoy Martin Griffiths sought to capitalize on the reduction in hostilities to jumpstart a new round of consultations.
Two days after his briefing, however, a ballistic missile killed over 110 soldiers in Marib, and heavy fighting ensued.
Unexpected and unprecedented
A ballistic missile believed to have been launched by the Houthis hit a military camp in Marib on Jan. 18, killing over 110 soldiers and wounding many more. The attack drew widespread criticism for targeting a mosque within the camp, which is a training camp for the Presidential Protection Brigade in Marib known as the Reception (Istiqbal) camp. The attack occurred during Maghreb prayer and the mosque was filled with troops. This was the Houthis’ third attack in Marib using the same type of missile within the span of a few months.
In late October, a missile hit the Ministry of Defense headquarters while Minister Mohammed Al-Maqdashi was holding a meeting with senior military commanders and a representative of the Saudi-led coalition. The commanders survived, although two guards of the defense minister were killed. Two weeks later on Nov. 13, another missile of the same type targeted the joint operations headquarters, adjacent to the minister's headquarters, killing three brigadier generals, a colonel and seven soldiers in that attack.
The Houthis did not claim responsibility for the three attacks, but a source in the chief of staff command familiar with the investigations told Almasdar Online that all three missile attacks originated in Serwah, a district of Marib governorate just west of Marib city, which is split between Houthi and government control. An officer working in the Military Reconnaissance and Intelligence Department told Almasdar Online the type of missile used “is very accurate and its margin of error is very limited.” He said the missile type was not in the Yemeni army’s arsenal prior to the war, and that it is unlikely the Houthis would have been able to develop such technology without substantial support from Iranian experts and Hezbollah.
Unlike the first two missile attacks, immediately following the Jan. 18 strike the Houthis launched a ground offensive in Al-Jawf, closely followed by one in Nihm. The Houthis simultaneously escalated in Serwah, while continuing in Al-Jawf. Serwah and Nihm have been two of the most critical fronts over the last few years. The fighting in Nihm district of Sana’a governorate is only around 40 kilometers from Sana’a city, the closest to the Houthis’ seat of power. In contrast, in the Serwah district of Marib, directly east of Sana’a, the frontline is fixed around 35 kilometers from Marib city. The city, in the heart of oil-rich Marib governorate, is one of the few islands of stability in government-controlled territory, and is crucial as a base for armed forces and as a resource center, housing Yemen’s largest power plant.
With the escalation in Al-Jawf and Serwah, reinforcements were not readily available to bolster defenses in Nihm. Nevertheless, it was unexpected that the Houthis would be able to pierce through the regular troops stationed there to maintain the frontline, given the mountainous terrain and how entrenched the frontline was. A military source in the Seventh Military Region, which oversees the Nihm front, said the Houthi offensive was unprecedented: “Since the Stockholm Agreement and the cessation of hostilities in Hodeidah a year ago, the Houthis were preparing for the Nihm battle.”
In conjunction with the fierce fighting in Nihm, the Houthis continued to fire missiles in Marib, two of which landed at the headquarters of the Third Military Region forces camp in the governorate. Another missile struck the house of a parliamentarian, killing a woman and a child and injuring six civilians. A reconnaissance officer Almasdar Online spoke to linked the rocket attack to the start of the battle in Nihm, saying the Houthis “wanted a pre-war incident to confuse the army and to be a prelude to the attack in conjunction with an intense propaganda campaign.”
During the first week of fighting in Nihm, the Houthis made significant gains and took control of some mountains and hills in the district. On Jan. 24, the Defense Ministry announced a tactical withdrawal from some locations in Nihm.
In light of broader shifts in the geopolitical arena, not least between the United States and Iran, which could have repercussions on the bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, determining the cause of the renewed high-intensity fighting in Yemen is important as it has implications for the larger strategy at play.
The warring parties have traded blame over who is responsible for the escalation, with the Houthis originally claiming they were merely responding to an attack by government troops. For its part, the government claimed the Houthis started the escalation in violation of the Stockholm Agreement. Military sources told Almasdar Online that the escalation was a pre-planned and well-coordinated attack by the Houthis, with the use of drones, thousands of troops, and strategic coordination between the different fronts.
A senior political affairs officer of UN Special Envoy’s office told Almasdar Online that it was not confirmed who bore responsibility for the escalation, but that it was unlikely to have been started by government forces since they would have prepared better defenses if they had been planning to launch an offensive.
There are many theories as to why the escalation occurred at this time. One is that the Houthis sought to capitalize on the government forces’ preoccupation with the STC in Shabwa and other governorates, where several brigades had been relocated from Marib. Another is that following the reduction in hostilities between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which is believed to have resulted from the secretive bilateral talks in Muscat, the Houthis felt a need to make a show of force in order to continue fueling their war-time propaganda and avoid domestic pressure on governance and other issues in areas under their control. Finally, the Marib–Nihm–Al-Jawf region is widely perceived as being a stronghold of the Islah Party, and thus compared to other frontlines the government forces have minimal coalition backing, leaving them relatively weaker.
Brigades loyal to President Hadi penetrated Nihm in early 2016, at the time considered a major breakthrough not least because of the mountainous terrain – in which the Houthis had become effective in fighting during the 2004-2010 Sa’ada wars – but also because of the front’s proximity to the capital. In the years following the army's entrance into Nihm, the front witnessed multiple battles, but there was never any indication that the coalition was planning to launch an offensive to retake Sana’a city from this front, as the Yemeni army forces were under equipped and without sufficient air support. Instead, Yemeni military leaders say that progress towards the capital requires a decision from the coalition, which has not yet happened.
The Houthis extensive use of landmines has also slowed advancement on these fronts. The group has littered the landscape with explosives, including in the form of fake rocks; by filling empty tuna and Pepsi cans; and by planting larger IEDs. The heavy use of these mines is noticeable in Marib’s main hospital, which has treated high numbers of civilians and soldiers alike missing limbs.
By the beginning of February, the fighting was ongoing in Serwah, Nihm, and parts of Al-Jawf governorate. Despite the government’s deployment of reinforcements to Nihm, the Houthis continued to hold on to most of the district, including strategic locations they overtook in the last two weeks. In Al-Jawf, the Houthis remained in an offensive position, with some advancement. The government had fortified its defenses, but further gains by the Houthis were not out of the question.
In Serwah, government forces launched a strong counter-offensive and took over a significant portion of the Haylan mountain range that spans much of the frontline in the district. However, the Houthis continued to hold Serwah town, which lies along the Marib-Sana’a road near the frontline. The Houthis have maintained control of most of the mountain range for several years. It is seen as a sort of natural barrier, and securing the range would not only leave Marib largely secured but also protect the government’s reinforcement lines to Nihm. Moreover, according to a local military official, capturing ground on Haylan mountain prevents the Houthis from launching certain types of projectiles into Marib city.