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To End the War in Yemen, Stop the Battle for Ma’rib

The new U.S. mediator will have to focus on an immediate ceasefire in Ma’rib to have any chance of proceeding towards full peace.

The ongoing battle for Ma’rib, a strategic region in the center of Yemen, threatens the new peace initiative launched by the Biden administration. As all sides marshal their resources for the capture of Ma’rib, ostensibly to strengthen their bargaining position at the ceasefire, the lives of hundreds of thousands of locals and internally displaced people are once again at risk. Untangling Ma’rib has become a critical first step on the path to a comprehensive ceasefire and peace for Yemen.

The Houthis Fight to Control Ma’rib

Undoubtedly the strongest single group in Yemen, the Houthis (Ansar Allah) are nonetheless facing their toughest military challenge yet. Tied up on other important fronts, including Ta’iz, Hudaidah and Saadah, the Houthis are throwing much of their critical military and human resources into the battle for Ma’rib. The value of this governorate is primarily economic – it contains most of the oil and gas currently produced in the country – but it is also of immense strategic importance, given its location. The linchpin of a strong line of defense at the foothills leading up to Sanaa, control of Ma’rib would also allow the Houthis to cut off any ground support from the north to Arab Coalition allies in the Hadramawt and the south. Should the Houthis launch an offensive in the future, a strong hold on Ma’rib would also allow them to send troops into Hadramawt in the east and Shabwa to the south.

Acquiring Shabwa would facilitate a move to the seashore, east of al-Mukalla, cutting any potential southern state in half. However, Ma’rib, surrounded by miles of flat desert terrain, is not an ideal ground for Houthi fighters, who are more skilled in, and accustomed to, rugged mountainous areas. Outside the city, their fighters, spread out with hardly any cover, make easy targets for aerial and ground bombardment. While there are no reliable figures, Houthi losses in Ma’rib are reportedly very high, and even if they took full control of the city, the forces required for its occupation could weaken their hold on other important regions and cities.

Hadi Forces and their Allies Defend Ma’rib

The same logic that has led the Houthis to try to take Ma’rib is driving anti-Houthi forces to gather for a major confrontation there. President Hadi’s forces have been augmented by troops primarily loyal to his vice president, Ali Mohsen, by tribal forces from Ma’rib, and by disgruntled tribes from al-Jawf and al-Bayda. Additionally, talks are ongoing for forces from the western coast (Tarek Saleh’s troops around Hudaidah) to join the Ma’rib battle, as well as southern fighters from Dale’a.

In sheer numbers, these forces could soon outnumber the Houthis, given how thinly they are stretched along other various fronts. Qualitatively, however, the anti-Houthi forces need to be under one command to pose a real threat, and that is an obstacle yet to be overcome. Throughout the course of the conflict, they have fought against one another as much as the Houthis; to fight effectively in Ma’rib, their leaders would have to bury their hatchets, at least temporarily.

The Arab Coalition’s Dilemma

Under pressure from the Biden administration to end the war in Yemen, the Saudi-led Arab coalition seems hesitant to commit to the ongoing fighting in Ma’rib. Without ground troops from either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the anti-Houthi forces complain that air-raids against the Houthis have not been able to fully support operations on the ground, and collateral damage from these raids continues to be high. The Arab states’ desire to form a strong relationship with the new administration in Washington may prove stronger than their desire to help the Yemenis push on in an ultimately unwinnable war. Riyadh’s support for its Yemeni partners in a full military operation will be now more difficult than the last four years as Washington is reassessing its strategic position in the Gulf. Therefore, taking the next step in that direction will have to include pressure on those allies to accept any ceasefire agreement that the U.S. special envoy is able to produce.

Many of the Yemeni refugees in Ma’rib have already escaped from fighting in the south and from areas under Houthi control. The city population has ballooned in recent years to close to three million; should the battles intensify, the resulting humanitarian disaster should be a matter of concern for all sides, as well as yet another reason to stop the war and rush in critically-needed humanitarian assistance.

The Conditions for Peace

Locked in a seemingly endless war, the battle for Ma’rib is an excellent example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. In the classic game theory problem, two prisoners betray each other, even though both would be better off cooperating, because they fear the other will betray them first. In the Yemeni case, each side fears that stopping their attacks, and laying down their arms, risks the other side continuing with the offensive and defeating them. Mediators need to convince both sides to take the risk for peace, or else stay locked in war indefinitely. A simultaneous ceasefire is the only plausible way out, with rewards for cooperating and punitive measures against those refusing to do so.

The Houthis have an important choice to make. They can let their ideological rhetoric push them further into Iran’s limited corner of the Middle East, or they can be pragmatic interlocutors for peace, focusing on what they need rather than what they desire: the siege lifted, Sana’a Airport opened, and salaries paid to public employees in the north. The Hadi government wants its seat of power back in Sana’a as a central government for the whole of Yemen, but it will have to live by strict transparency standards and root out the corruption in their midst. Southern Hirak as a general rule desires a separate state, but the Southern Transitional Council (STC) will have to be democratically chosen by all southerners and must soften its demands to be included in the Yemeni government. Saudi cooperation is conditioned on security against the Iranian presence in Yemen and Houthi rockets across their borders.

The use of force has failed over the past six years to produce a military solution to the Yemen conflict, as have numerous mediation efforts. The new U.S. mediator will have to focus on an immediate ceasefire in Ma’rib to have any chance of proceeding towards full peace. Conflict resolution does not involve giving warring parties what they demand, but rather what they need. A mutual non-aggression pact between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be ideal, but unrealistic at this point. The U.S. can, however, continue to guarantee the defense of sensitive areas in Saudi Arabia via the continued deployment of Patriot missiles and the training of Saudi military units. The Houthis, in turn, could negotiate an agreement with Saudi Arabia, promising not to launch rockets at Riyadh in exchange for Saudi Arabia ending its aerial bombardment of Yemen. Lifting the siege around Yemen for humanitarian goods, while continuing to monitor for and stop arms shipments, would meet the needs of both Saudis and Yemenis.

The details of the future government of Yemen will have to be determined by the Yemenis themselves, based on the principles of democracy and regional decentralization. The international community can generously contribute to the rebuilding of Yemen, guaranteeing the basic needs and services citizens need to alleviate the suffering brought on by years of war, pandemics and famine. Only a power-sharing agreement, and eventually a corruption-free and democratic government, can be the ultimate guarantor of peace and prosperity in Yemen, but international donors will have to play a direct role in ensuring that this happens.

Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and previously was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. His commentaries appear on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Resource, The Hill, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and on his own blog, Middle East Corner. After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Dr. Khoury retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He taught Middle East and US strategy courses at the National Defense University and Northwestern University. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Khoury earned his BA in political science from the American University of Beirut and his MA and PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Albany. Before his Foreign Service career, Khoury was an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and earlier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan in Amman. Dr. Khoury has published articles on issues of leadership and development in the Arab world in The Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and The International Journal of Middle East Studies. Articles on the regional impact of the Arab uprising and on U.S. policy in Yemen appear in the summer 2013 and summer 2014 issues of Middle East Policy. In 2019 Dr. Khoury published his book “Bunker Diplomacy: An Arab-American in the U.S. Foreign Service: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”

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