With the capture of Al-Jawf's capital on Sunday, Houthi forces now threaten the sprawling government stronghold
Yemen army fortifies increasingly surrounded Marib city in preparation for Houthi siege
Houthi fighters made significant advances on Sunday into Yemen’s northeastern Al-Jawf governorate, which sits between Saudi Arabia to the north and army-held Marib governorate to the south.
The army, loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government, retreated in the face of the Houthi advances to Labenat camp and Raghwan district in northern Marib, where the government forces are making arrangements to fortify the strategic governorate against Houthis incursions.
Al-Jawf, Yemen's second largest governorate in terms of area, was captured by the Houthis in mid-2015 only to be retaken by the army and Saudi-led coalition at the end of the same year.
Marib, a government stronghold since the start of the war, has emerged as an island of economic stability and security in the conflict, owing to investments from national oil and gas companies and presence of the Ministry of Defense headquarters and the Saudi led-coalition’s Tadaween military base
Last week, as fighting intensified in Al-Jawf, Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who lives in Riyadh, appointed Lt. Gen. Saghir Bin Aziz as the army’s chief of staff. Bin Aziz was a parliamentarian from the General People's Congress party and military commander who fought the Houthis fiercely during the six wars in Sa’ada between 2004 and 2010 under the leadership of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh unexpectedly allied with the Houthis in 2013, Bin Aziz sided with Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition.
Since the Houthis seized Al-Jawf’s capital Al-Hazm city on Sunday, tens of thousands of civilians have fled to Marib, joining more than 1 million displaced people who fled Sana’a and other governorates controlled by the Houthis early on in the war. The Executive Unit of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Marib said it was unable to cope with the massive influx of displaced people and appealed to international organizations and donors to intervene. Many of the IDPs in Marib lack basic essentials, including tents, blankets and sanitation supplies.
With the capture of Al-Hazm, the Houthis have opened a new battlefront to Marib’s the north, adding to the Nihm and Sirwah fronts to the west and the Al-Baydha front to the south.
Despite being increasingly surrounded by rebel fighters, Marib has several features that could pose a challenge to a Houthi takeover, in addition to the presence of the defense ministry and other defense agencies including human resources, logistics and intelligence in the city.
Marib Governor Sheikh Sultan Al-Arada enjoys a wide base of support in the governorate, as well as good relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. When the war broke out in 2015, Al-Arada was able to quickly stabilize the situation in Marib by strengthening security services, launching infrastructure projects, attracting financial investments and managing the development and expansion of the capital Marib city.
Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammed Al-Maqdashi, chief of staff Bin Aziz and senior army officers are stationed in Marib and have used it as a command center to appoint commanders and manage fronts across the country.
However, army commanders have demanded higher quality weapons, equipment and more air support from Saudi warplanes to fight the Houthis.
"The Yemeni government does not buy weapons,” a senior official in the defense ministry told Almasdar Online. “We rely solely on what Saudi Arabia supplies or ammunition bought from the local market.”
“We are fighting the battle on the ground without effective political, diplomatic and logistical support,” he said, warning that the lack of political support for the battles serves the Houthis.
The Marib public and tribes have played a significant role in repelling the Houthis from the city since 2015 and continue to support the army in current battles.
Before fighting broke out in early January, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia had adhered to an unofficial truce following months of political talks in Muscat. A condition of the talks was that the Saudis would stop targeting the rebels in and around Sana’a in exchange for an end to Houthi missile and drone strikes in the kingdom. The truce fell apart as the Houthis expanded into Marib and Al-Jawf in recent weeks.
Hadi government officials have accused the Houthis of taking advantage of that truce, as well as the UN-sponsored ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, to regroup and mobilize rebel forces toward Al-Jawf, Marib and other fronts including Al-Dhale and Abyan in the south and Taiz in central Yemen.