If the Marib governorate fell into the hands of the Houthis, it would be a blow to the Saudi-led military coalition that has been fighting the Iran-aligned group for more than six years and to the United Nations-led peace efforts.
The looming battle for the city of Marib would also put its population of three million at risk, including nearly 1 million who have fled other parts of Yemen since being caught up in a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Houthi military spokesman Yahia Sarea announced on Tuesday that they had seized the al-Jubah and Jabal Murad districts of Marib, after seizing al-Abdiyah and Harib last month, saying that “our mujahideen are continuing the march towards the city of Marib “.
They have advanced in most districts of Marib, Yemen’s only gas-producing region and home to one of the country’s largest oil fields at Marib Al Wadi, which together with the city of Marib remain fully under the control of the government.
It is unclear whether the Houthis will launch a direct assault on the governorate’s capital of Marib or take steps to seize nearby oil and gas facilities and lay siege to the city.
Its territorial gains in Marib, as well as the oil-rich Shabwa in the south, come despite coalition airstrikes and fierce battles that have taken a heavy toll on both sides, but have also killed civilians. .
“The Houthi control of all of Marib seems only a matter of time, although it could take several months, unless the government forces receive better quality weapons from the coalition and overcome the differences between them,” said Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, member. del Sana ‘a Center for Strategic Studies.
Government forces say they will not budge. There are trenches, sandbags and land mines around the city, two military sources and a local official said.
“If the Houthis move through the desert towards the oil and gas fields east of the city of Marib, they will be easy prey for coalition fighter jets, so they will try to encircle the city from three fronts, but we can resist and break them, “said a military commander. , who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Marib is located east of the capital Sanaa, which the Houthis took along with most of northern Yemen in 2014 when they toppled the Saudi-backed government, prompting the coalition to intervene only to be trapped at one point. military dead.
The United Nations and the United States have fought to engineer a truce necessary to reignite political talks to end a war that has killed tens of thousands and left millions starving.
“Our immediate concern is the safety and protection of civilians in Marib. In just the first six months of this year, more civilians were killed or injured than in the previous two years combined,” said Erin Hutchinson, country director for the Council. Norwegian for Refugees. in Yemen.
Talks between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran aimed at easing tensions have made little progress and the Houthis’ advance in Marib is likely to further embolden Tehran. The two enemies have competed for years for control throughout the region.
“From an Iranian perspective, their ally in Yemen, the Houthis, appear to be very close to winning the war in the north, if not the entire country. It is extremely difficult to understand why they or the Houthis would feel that this is the right time. stop, “said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
Riyadh, which wants to get out of a costly war but needs security guarantees, including Houthi missiles that have targeted Saudi cities, has seen a shift of power towards the Houthis since 2019, when its ally the United Arab Emirates greatly reduced its presence. .
“The Saudis … will not leave (Yemen) at any cost, they need to present their intervention as something successful,” Salisbury said.
Even if Riyadh does come to terms with the Houthis, ending the war requires an agreement among Yemen’s myriad factions.
“Is it possible to work towards an internally consistent agreement? It’s just a lot of moving parts,” he said.