The fight for an ancient desert city in Yemen’s war-torn country has become a key to understanding broader Middle East tensions and the obstacles facing President Joe Biden’s administration’s attempts to pull US troops out of the area.
Fighting has erupted in the mountains outside Marib as Iran-aligned Houthi rebels attempting to capture Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, which is critical to the country’s energy supplies.
Saudi Arabia, which has led a military alliance supporting Sanaa’s exiled government since 2015, has conducted several air strikes to halt the Houthi advance on Marib. The Houthis have retaliated with drone and missile attacks deep within Saudi Arabia, causing global oil markets to become agitated.
The fight for Marib would almost certainly decide the contours of any diplomatic resolution in Yemen’s second civil war, which began in the 1990s. If the Houthis take control of the city, they will be able to use their position in negotiations and even move further south. If retained, Yemen’s internationally recognized government will save what could be its only foothold as secessionists challenge its authority in other parts of the country.
The conflict also puts pressure on the US’s most strong Gulf Arab ally and stymies any US return to the nuclear deal with Iran. It also complicates Biden’s administration’s attempts to gradually transfer the US military’s long-standing mass deployments to the Middle East to address what it sees as the emerging threat from China and Russia.
According to Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, losing Marib would be “the last bullet in the head of the internationally recognized government.” “You’re looking at a century of unrest and humanitarian disaster. For regional meddling, you’ll even look at a free-for-all theater.”