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Yemen's Houthis eye oil-rich Marib after making swift gains

A disastrous offensive has left Hadi's forces exposed, but residents in the central province are resolute in the face of a possible Houthi attack
A Yemeni tribesman supporting forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed president during fighting against Houthi rebels in Marib, east of the capital Sanaa, in 2017 (AFP)
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Sanaa

Fresh from rapid gains in Sanaa province, Yemen’s Houthi movement is seeking to push into wealthy government-held areas of Marib, which holds some of the country’s most important oil and gas resources.

The battle for Marib is the latest development in a protracted Yemeni conflict between the Houthi movement and a western-backed, Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to reinstate the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

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On Wednesday, Houthi spokesman Yehia Saria said his fighters had fended off an attack on them by pro-Hadi forces in the Nehm district, which lies 60 kilometres to the northeast of the capital Sanaa.

According to Saria, pro-government forces launched their attack on Nehm in mid-January. Their defeat, the Houthi spokesman said, allowed the Houthis to launch a blistering counterattack and successfully capture the entire district.

Now they are looking to push further in an operation called "Al-Bunyan al-Marsoos", seeking to capture Hadi-held parts of Marib province nearby.

“Al-Bunyan al-Marsoos operation has liberated 2,500 kilometres of territory, and the enemy has lost thousands of forces,” Saira claimed.

The internationally recognised government has yet to comment on the Houthi statement.

Pro-Hadi soldiers ‘betrayed’ the army

Hadi’s forces are now on the back foot. Where once they spoke about taking the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, now they discuss ways to defend Marib, a strategic oil and gas hub.

In addition to its oil fields and its Safer oil refinery, Marib also is a key producer of natural gas, supplying the entire country.

On Monday, following the Nehm losses, Hadi sacked the local military commander and appointed a new one.

Ibrahim, a pro-government fighter in Marib province, said that some loyalist soldiers “betrayed” them and withdrew from battles, causing sizeable losses amongst their troops.

“We were planning to advance towards Sanaa, but our attempt was hindered by the withdrawal of a battalion of soldiers, which gave the Houthis a chance to attack us,” he told Middle East Eye.

“That was a betrayal by the soldiers and their leader, as they damaged the morale of the other fighters.”

'We were planning to advance towards Sanaa, but our attempt was hindered by the withdrawal of a battalion of soldiers, which gave the Houthis a chance to attack us'

- Ibrahim, pro-Hadi fighter

Last Friday, the government acknowledged the Houthis' progress, saying it had carried out a "tactical withdrawal" of its own troops from certain positions east of Sanaa, some of which it had held for three years.

Ibrahim was not convinced by the government’s claims.

“Had it been a tactical withdrawal, the government would not have talked about it,” he said.

“The government should have conducted an investigation into the leader who instructed his forces to withdraw, leaving others to fall in the hands of the Houthis.”

Despite the Houthis’ recent successes, Ibrahim is pessimistic that they can take Hadi-held areas of Marib at any moment as claimed. The recent battles took a heavy toll on the Houthis too, he noted, with hundreds killed, wounded or arrested.

The local resistance is also key.

“If not for the support of the tribal fighters, the Houthis would take over the whole province of Marib,” the soldier said. “The tribal leaders asked their fighters to join the battles. This encouraged us to fight. The government did nothing.”

For Ibrahim, the lack of leadership in pro-Hadi ranks has been damning.

“I am not willing to fight under this leadership anymore, and neither are my colleagues,” he said. “We are willing to continue fighting under a tribal leader, but not under the leadership of the army that does not care about us.”

The Houthis ‘fight for ideological reasons’

Mohammed, a journalist based in Marib who is closely following the developments, said the Houthis’ ideological drive has given them an edge in Marib’s battles.

“They do not withdraw because they believe in fighting to the maximum, whereas most of the pro-Hadi forces fight for the sake of money,” he told MEE.

Mohammed, who prefers to use his first name for security reasons, said Hadi’s forces were far more united when the war began in 2015. Today, however, he believes they are much weaker.

“The pro-Hadi forces are not loyal to the country, but to different leaders, and each leader has his own plan and agenda.”

The journalist believes that the Houthis have had a role in demoralising pro-Hadi forces in Marib by sending some of their fighters to infiltrate rival forces in Marib, claiming they switched sides.

'I believe that the Houthis send some of their men to work covertly inside the Yemeni army in Marib'

- Mohammed, journalist

“The pro-Hadi forces in Marib accept any fighter arriving from the Houthi areas, considering it a victory,” Mohamed said.

“But I believe that the Houthis send some of their men to work covertly inside the Yemeni army in Marib,” he added.

In Marib, Hadi’s forces are a hodgepodge of fighters from various places, with little unity. This leaves them open for infiltration, Mohammed suggested, adding that Houthi agents may have sapped morale in the ranks that controversially withdrew.

The governor of Marib, Sultan al-Aradah, is also a tribal leader. He said in a speech on Sunday that the situation is stable in Marib city, the provincial capital.

“I know my men and their bravery. I believe they will take revenge for the national army and the country. Marib’s residents quickly supported the Yemeni army in Nehm,” Aradah said.

“I stopped the rest of my men from joining the battles after I saw there are enough fighters on the frontline.”

The enthusiasm to fend off any Houthi attack on Marib is near boundless, the governor suggested.

“Even infirm people receiving treatment abroad have called me, confirming they will return to support the heroes of the national army,” he said.