Marib: Yemen's perpetual front line

Mafraj Blog contributor Mohammed Ali Kalfood reports on the conflict in Marib. For more on this issue, listen to our interview with Nadwa al-Dawsari on episode 18 of Mafraj Radio. In five encampments spread along three sides of Marib city in east Yemen, local tribal fighters have been holding their ground against forces loyal to the Houthi movement and former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh since last September, when the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital. Following the fall of Sanʻa, pro-Houthi units advanced on Marib, as well as other strategically important parts of the country.

Since then, sporadic clashes have taken place in Marib Governorate, where crucial elements of Yemen’s energy sector are located. Thousands of armed tribesmen, who hail from five key tribes in the province, have mobilized their local fighters to repel the Houthi fighters advancing on their fatherland along with pro-Saleh forces.

The Houthis and their allies claim that the Marib tribes are harboring elements of al-Qaeda in Yemen, a justification that has been disputed by several local observers.

“We have solid evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Marib, as tribes have provided refuge for its elements,” Tawfiq al-Himyari, a member on the Houthi movement’s ‘Revolutionary Committee’ in Sanʻa, said in an interview.

Four months after the Houthis’ seizure of the capital—days before the now-exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi was placed under house arrest—the movement’s leader, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, issued four demands in a televised speech. One of those demands was that President Hadi act immediately to secure Marib, where, al-Houthi said, al-Qaeda elements and allied saboteurs continued to carry out attacks on an important oil pipeline and the national electricity grid. Back then, al-Houthi also accused both Hadi and the Islamist Islah party of empowering al-Qaeda.

Soon after the Houthis siezed power and placed Hadi under house arrest, Marib’s major tribes “openly expressed their support” to President Hadi. On the day the Houthis announced their “constitutional declaration” in the capital, Marib tribes announced their “autonomy” from Sanʻa as their fighters established their encampments, effectively closing all entrances to Marib province.

But ‘Ali al-Qibli Namran, Chief of the Tribal Federation in Marib, argues that there is no presence of al-Qaeda in the province, and that is just “an excuse” the Houthis like to make.

“Al-Houthi always raises and makes up excuses that are, as a matter of fact, issues of concern to the public and the international community in order to gain acquiescence and overlook his expansion into the cities and provinces he wants to control,” Namran said.

"If there is anyone suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda, then the government, with the cooperation of the people of Marib, have the sole responsibility to fight and arrest him, and if al-Qaeda had a presence in Marib, it would have attacked oil and electricity facilities as well as army camps.”

But al-Qaeda has carried out sporadic attacks in this oil-rich province, and its presence there is believed to pre-date the first US drone strike in Yemen in 2002.  According to local experts, the Houthi expansion into other parts of Yemen may also increase rivalry with the local branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

“The expansion of the Houthi group into several areas has ratcheted up rivalry with the extremist factions, and paved the way for such factions to be recruited as fighters,” said Ahmed Arami, a writer and political analyst from Radaʻ district of al-Baydha, which the Houthis entered last November “to fight al-Qaeda there,” before they turned to the neighboring province of Marib.

The Houthis also used the phenomenon of attacks on oil and power installations to justify their invasion of Marib. Such attacks became common after the May 2010 killing of Marib’s deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani. Al-Shabwani, who was negotiating with AQAP on behalf of the Yemeni government, was allegedly killed by an American missile strike based on intelligence provided by then-President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh.

Clashes have chiefly been taking place in the western districts of Marib since September, although lately the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have tried to advance on the city from the northern, western, and southern sides, according to local tribal sources.

“Five tribal encampments have been set up: in Nakhla of al-Wadi district to the north of Marib; in al-Suhail of Sirwah district to the northwest; in al-Washamah of Jouba district, and Najd al-Majma’ah of al-Rahabah district to the southwest; as well as al-Labanat of Sirwah district to the northwest,” one of the tribal elders of the Jihm tribe, ‘Abdullah Bin Tayman said.

“We will defend and protect the province at any cost,” said Tayman, indicating that all tribes have vowed, “Marib will never be captured by the Houthis, who are backed Saleh and Iran.”

While the Houthis were seeking to mobilize tribal support on their side, other tribes from the neighboring provinces of al-Jawf, al-Baydha, and Shabwa have sided with the tribal fighters of Marib and joined the battle as well, according to local sources.

According to tribal elder Tayman, “clashes have lately intensified in Sirwah district and nearby areas,” adding that “the tribal resistance has lost at least 50 tribesmen while scores of Houthis and their allies [pro-Saleh forces] have been killed.”

Analysts in Sanʻa say that the Marib frontline has been “slowly but surely escalating,” although since President Hadi was forced to flee his provisional capital of Aden, the fighting has become more focused on the southern part of Yemen.

“The fighting in Marib, as in several Yemeni cities, is merely politically motivated, and gradually increasing and becoming a real threat to the entire country, especially when half of the 800 megawatt of power, which the country produces, in addition to the majority of oil derivatives, come from Marib,” said Ahmed al-Hasaani, a political analyst in Sanʻa.

According to Saeed al-Youssifi, a local activist in Marib, the five-day “humanitarian pause” agreed to by Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah did not include a cessation of combat in Marib.

“After the ceasefire began [on Tuesday, May 12], clashes broke out again and lasted for about 12 hours,” said al-Youssifi, adding that “the Saudi warplanes have been providing air cover for the tribal fighters.”

However, fighting on the Marib frontline over the past seven months seems to have produced a standoff, although fierce clashes have spread to three bordering provinces, al-Jawf, al-Baydha and Shabwah, where the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have apparently gained ground, according to several local activists in Marib.

While the Marib battle has not been a major topic in ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s recent speeches, Revolutionary Committee member Tawfiq al-Himyari argued that “the battle in Marib has yet to begin to purge the city of al-Qaeda and its partners.”