Just days after the Biden administration reversed the Trump-era designation of the Houthi movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the armed group renewed its military campaign to take over the strategic city of Marib. As the Yemeni national army backed by resistance fighters and local tribes fights to fend off the offensive, Saudi Arabia has carried out airstrikes and redeployed military hardware to repel the Houthi onslaught. President Biden and his new special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, have condemned the Houthi attack on Marib, stressing the need for diplomatic solutions to bring the interminable Yemen conflict to an end.
Strongly worded statements, however, are unlikely to change the reality on the ground. The US and international community cannot pursue a political settlement while the ongoing Houthi assault on Marib threatens to radically shift the balance of power in the war. A Houthi takeover of Marib could easily prove the most pivotal shift in the war to date and would have to be addressed before any renewed push for peace talks.
The city of Marib, which hosts over 2 million civilians – including an estimated 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – has become a symbolic safe haven and the last military stronghold of the internationally recognized government in northern Yemen. The Houthi advance threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of people and put Yemen at risk of the “worst famine the world has seen in decades,” according to UN officials. Uprooting the government and the Islah party from Marib would also afford the Houthis control over the governorate’s strategic oil and gas resources and position them for a push south into Shabwa and east into Hadramawt, toward Yemen’s other oil and gas fields.
Halting the assault on Marib is an essential precursor to negotiations in Yemen. However, while the US can put pressure on the Saudi-led military coalition, the Biden administration lacks leverage with the Houthis. The inability to pressure the Houthis has also plagued the UN special envoy, who has been unable to coax the group into earnest peace talks or meaningful concessions.
The US has three basic options. The first, and unfortunately the most likely course, is that the US persists with its diplomatic approach to stop the Marib offensive. This won’t work. The UN has tried it numerous times. Diplomatic statements and demands to stand down haven’t worked before, and they are unlikely to prove successful this time.
It is possible that the Saudi-led coalition can fight the Houthis to a stalemate. But this would be temporary. The Houthis view Marib as existential, couching their offensive in religious terms, as they seek to gain control over much-needed natural resources in the governorate. Unlike 2015, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and local tribesmen jointly pushed the Houthis from Marib all the way back to Nehm in Sana’a governorate, the anti-Houthi coalition today is more fractured and fatigued, particularly since the UAE pulled out of Marib in June 2019.
Eventually, whether in this round of fighting or the next, an undeterred Houthi assault will likely lead to the fall of Marib. This, in turn, would necessitate Biden’s tacit acceptance of Houthi political and military primacy in northern Yemen, and that will alter any future negotiations.
Option two is that the US recognizes that Marib falling will prove too disastrous from a military, political and humanitarian perspective, and does everything in its power to stop it from happening. To do this, the US will have to resort to the only true leverage it has over the Houthis: supporting a military intervention to quell the offensive. This is as unlikely to work as the first option, although for very different reasons. Namely, there is no appetite in either the Biden administration or Congress for direct military action in Yemen. Not to mention the fact that any direct US military intervention could backfire.
That leaves a third option. Understanding that words won’t stop the Houthis and that the US isn’t about to get directly involved in the fighting, the Biden administration could encourage Saudi Arabia and the UAE to redouble their efforts and re-engage in Marib. However, this would require Biden to walk back his rhetoric, at least tacitly, and reverse the administration’s signaling to Saudi Arabia. Instead of pressing the kingdom to draw down its war in Yemen, Biden would need to encourage a military pushback against the Houthis. Despite the UAE’s minimized role in Yemen since 2019, the US could request it to provide military support to help Saudi Arabia decisively roll back the Houthi offensive.
The US has no good options in Yemen. There are only bad options and worse ones. Encouraging the Saudi-led coalition to push back against the Houthis militarily is politically awkward so soon after declaring that the US would withdraw its support from the coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen. But allowing the Houthis to take Marib would be worse. Forcing a considerable Houthi retreat is the best deterrent to future offensives against the city. Further, containing the Houthis’ current lines of territorial control would deal a blow to the group’s aspirations and prove essential to pushing them into unconditional negotiations down the line.
A victory in Marib would likely cement Houthi control over much of north Yemen. Already, the Houthis see themselves as the primary beneficiaries of six years of war. Airstrikes to push them out of Sana’a have been unsuccessful. While they began the war with a partner in former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they now rule unopposed and, increasingly, as a nation-state. Their domestic enemies are divided and have competing agendas, and Saudi Arabia is deeply unpopular in Washington.
The Houthis have no interest in a power-sharing agreement and, in a post-Marib scenario, will have even less incentive to negotiate. The US is stuck. It doesn’t want to oversee the de facto partition of Yemen, but neither does it want to encourage Saudi Arabia to double-down in Marib when it is trying to get the Kingdom out of Yemen. Besides, the war in Yemen is no longer simply between two sides. It is now a multi-faceted conflict, and any future peace settlement will have to include groups like the Southern Transitional Council and Tareq Saleh’s fighters on the Red Sea Coast.
The Biden administration needs to accept that the US cannot end this war on its own. But if the US does want to put Yemen on the path toward peace and ensure that the country remains a single state, it is essential that the US does everything in its power to prevent Marib from falling to the Houthis.
This commentary appeared in Houthis at the Gates of Marib – The Yemen Review, January-February 2021
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.