Houthi fighters hold images of relatives killed in violent conflict

Yemen's most stable city threatened by Houthi takeover

Houthi militias have renewed their military campaign to take over Marib, Yemen. Nadwa al-Dawsari, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, tells The World what’s at stake with this new push to take control of Marib.

The World

Gunfire and air strikes rattle the scrubland on the outskirts of Marib in Yemen: 

The Houthi militias, who control Yemen's capital city, Sanaa, and much of the country, have renewed their military campaign to take over the city, located just 75 miles east of the capital. 

Resistance fighters are defending Marib with military support from Saudi Arabia, which has provided air strikes and now ground troops

Related: In foreign policy reset, Biden ends US support for Saudi-led offensive

This is happening just as a change in the White House signals a renewed effort to end the Yemen war — diplomatically.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revoked the Trump-era designation of Houthis, known widely as Ansarullah, as a foreign terrorist organization in recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. The label would have hindered the delivery of aid to parts of Yemen under Houthi control. 

Related: US State Department designates Yemen's Houthis as terrorist organization

“By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue,” wrote Secretary Blinken in a statement.

Related: Aid agencies fear impact in Yemen after US terror decision

President Joe Biden’s new special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, spoke with reporters Tuesday, saying the uptick in fighting will lead to the internal displacement of more people.

“The potential for more IDPs [internally displaced persons] to either flee in or out of Marib is something that is going to push an already stretched humanitarian infrastructure beyond the breaking point,” Lenderking said.

Related: Labeling the Houthis as 'terrorists' could cost Yemeni lives

On Thursday, the United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council, in a Zoom call, that the Houthi attack on Marib must stop.

He said, “The quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”

But not everyone sees a diplomatic solution at hand.

Nadwa al-Dawsari is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and she is from Yemen. Dawsari knows the city of Marib well, and when The World’s Carol Hills reached her in Washington, Dawsari explained what’s at stake in the new push by the Houthis to take control of Marib.

"Marib is the last stronghold of the Yemeni government. It is also a city that hosts 3 million civilians, including almost a million IDPs [internally displaced persons] who fled mainly from the north, from Houthi persecution, but also from the war in general. Marib also sits on much of Yemen oil and all Yemen gas." 

Nadwa al-Dawsari, scholar from Yemen, Middle East Institute

"Marib is the last stronghold of the Yemeni government. It is also a city that hosts 3 million civilians, including almost a million IDPs who fled mainly from the north, from Houthi persecution, but also from the war in general. Marib also sits on much of Yemen oil and all Yemen gas," Dawsari told The World. 

Carol Hills: So, you mentioned IDPs, internally displaced persons. How many people have fled to Marib during the civil war? 

Nadwa Al-Dawsari: Displaced people living in camps — almost a million. The numbers reported are 800,000 civilians. But a lot of people also relocated to Marib and rented homes and bought homes because the city has become an example of stability. There are services, there is electricity 24 hours, there are jobs. So, it has created a lot of opportunities during the war that other parts of the country did not have. 

Given how strategic Marib is and the concern over a humanitarian disaster there, if the Houthis take over, who is defending Marib? Who is aiding the people of Marib to keep that from happening? 

The people who are defending Marib now are the tribes; they are defending their homes because they know that if Houthis take over, they'll do to them what they did to other tribes in areas they captured. They'll blow up their homes, they'll execute their tribal leaders, they'll rule with repression. So, they understand the risk, and they're willing to defend their homes to their death. 

You have built a solid reputation as a scholar who really understands Yemen's tribes. What does that tell you about what needs to happen to prevent Marib from falling to the Houthis? 

There is only one thing that can prevent Marib from falling into the hands of the Houthis. There needs to be one big military operation —  well-planned, well-executed — to push the Houthis far enough from Marib so that they don't pose a threat to the city in the future. 

So, does that mean that the only country who can really help out is Saudi Arabia, the country being accused of stoking and keeping the Yemeni war going? 

Look, I agree. Saudi Arabia has contributed negatively to the Yemen war, but we're talking about an immediate risk. And having to deal with that immediate risk, unfortunately, entails military support. 

But it's been six years and no one has seemed to be able to defeat the Houthis. 

Well, again, the reasons are two things: One, that the Saudis have not been providing enough military support to the tribes to fend off the Houthis. The second reason is that the UN has been calling for a constant ceasefire, which only the Saudis and the Hadi government accepted and abided by, but not the Houthis. 

We've heard the United Nations and the US government, under Donald Trump and now under Joe Biden, all say some version of this sentence: "The war in Yemen cannot be won militarily; it must be a diplomatic solution." Who would have to be at the negotiating table for that to happen? 

First of all, this narrative is extremely naive. I mean, the Houthis are not listening. They're not willing to deescalate. They're not willing to accept others. So, how can you negotiate with that? There needs to be a military action to weaken the Houthis in order to force them to come to the negotiation table in good faith. 

What if the Houthis do besiege the city? What happens then? 

If Houthis besiege the city, I think they're going to try to enter the city by force. I'm sure they will be faced with a lot of armed resistance. So, I think we're likely to see an escalation in fighting within the city and around the city for at least a while, because, again, Houthis are superior militarily, and they will be able to crush resistance. But I think it will come at a high cost. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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