Key to conflict: How battle for Marib is crucial to Yemen war
Dubai (AFP) –
Yemen's Huthi rebels are drawing closer to the strategic city of Marib, whose seizure from the government could be a pivotal moment in the seven-year war.
The Iran-allied Huthis are in the midst of a major push to take the city, with hundreds from both sides killed in fierce fighting this month.
Here are some key facts about Marib and its strategic role:
- 'Military weight' -
Marib is the last northern bastion of the internationally recognised government, which was driven from the capital Sanaa in 2014 and is now based in the southern city of Aden.
If it falls into rebel hands, not only would the Huthis control all the north, but it could also facilitate the capture of other provinces.
Marib has "significant military weight" for the government, said Ahmed Nagi of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
"It carries the symbolic course of the conflict, with it being the area the Huthis have not been able to seize despite relentless efforts over the past six years, even before the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition" from 2015, he told AFP.
Capturing Marib would also give the Huthis leverage in any negotiations with the government.
Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalek Saeed said this week that the ongoing battle "is not one for (nearby) Shabwa or Marib, but a battle for all Yemenis", according to the official Saba news agency.
"The fate of the battle will determine the future of Yemen."
- Energy wealth -
Marib province boasts oil and gas reserves, making it a major economic prize.
The Safer oil refinery, established in 1986, is one of two in Yemen with the capacity to produce 10,000 barrels per day, according to Yemen's ministry of oil and minerals.
In a 2019 report, the ministry said production had reached 20,000 bpd.
Marib governor Sultan al-Arada says production has so far not been affected by the fighting and that Marib supplies gas to the entire country, even areas under rebel control.
Nagi said there was an "economic dimension" to the battle.
"The Huthis are aggressively fighting to control the resources of Marib," he said.
- North-south gateway -
Marib is about 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of the rebel-held capital Sanaa, connected via a major highway. It also lies near another highway that leads to the south of Saudi Arabia.
Its location is significant not only because of its proximity to Sanaa but also because it sits at a crossroads between the southern and northern regions.
The city has several historical sites, and is surrounded by mountains and valleys. It is said to have been the capital of the ancient Saba kingdom, best known for the Queen of Sheba.
- Peace talks? -
Controlling Marib would significantly strengthen the rebels' hand in any peace talks, if they decide to return to the negotiating table.
The last talks took place in Sweden in 2018, when the opposing sides agreed to a mass prisoner swap and to spare the city of Hodeida, where the port serves as the country's lifeline.
But despite agreeing to a ceasefire in Hodeida, violent clashes have since broken out between the rebels and pro-government troops around the city.
- Humanitarian risks -
Marib had between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants before the war.
But its population has ballooned to hundreds of thousands, as Yemenis fled frontline cities for its "relative stability" and the chance to maintain a livelihood, according to Nagi.
The government says there are 139 camps in Marib province, hosting approximately 2.2 million people.
But these displaced civilians are now again caught in the line of fire.
The United Nations has warned that civilians are at grave risk due to the military escalation, which has forced many to flee towards new displacement sites as fighting nears.
- Array of forces -
Opposing the Huthis are pro-government forces who include local tribes, backed by a Saudi-led coalition and its airpower.
"The coalition stands by the national army by providing air and logistical support," Marib governor Sultan al-Arada said in March.
"If it were not for air support, the situation could have been different."
The Huthis, meanwhile, consider Marib "one of the main frontlines of the aggressors' war on Yemen".
They claim it is "an arena for occupying foreign forces and a bowl swarming with dark forces and organisations from Al-Qaeda, Daesh (Islamic State) and the Muslim Brotherhood".
According to Nagi, fighters of the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Al-Islah party were a strong presence on the battlefield.
"Al-Islah is present in most provinces in the country, but many of its members fled to Marib since it is a safer region and they fight within the ranks of the government army and the tribes," he said.
© 2021 AFP