After al-Bayda, the Beginning of the Endgame for Northern Yemen? - Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°84

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The Huthis have taken al-Bayda, the southern approach to Marib and its oil reserves. A battle for this prize likely would not conclude the war, however. The new UN envoy should work to avert that showdown while revamping the framework for making peace in Yemen.

What’s new? After consolidating their hold upon al-Bayda, a strategically located governorate in central Yemen, the Huthi rebels are making a multi-front push into government-controlled territory to isolate, eliminate or co-opt tribal and other rivals. Their immediate objective is Marib, whose capture they hope will mark a turning point in the war.

Why does it matter? After al-Bayda, a Huthi victory in Marib seems more likely. It could deal a fatal blow to the Yemeni government and throw UN mediation efforts into further disarray. Nevertheless, Marib’s fall would far more likely shift the conflict into a new and potentially bloodier phase than end it.

What should be done? The new UN special envoy should travel to Sanaa and Marib as soon as possible to launch intensive intra-Yemeni and regional diplomacy and, with support from the Security Council’s permanent members, engage with any and all proposals to prevent a destructive battle for Marib.

I. Overview

At least for the time being, Yemen’s Huthi rebels have won the battle for the strategically important al-Bayda governorate. As al-Bayda lies next to oil- and gas-rich Marib province, the northernmost part of the last contiguous bloc of government-controlled territory, taking it was a significant victory. The Huthis soon made rapid gains in Marib as well as Shebwa and Abyan provinces – all of which border al-Bayda – apparently to cut supply lines connecting their various foes and expand their Marib offensive. These advances could strike a decisive blow to the government. The rebels have also divided their opponents, geographically and politically. A renewed Huthi push toward Marib city is now likely, as is massive displacement. Yemen’s UN envoy, backed by the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, should travel to Yemen to meet the country’s armed factions and their outside sponsors to seek a halt to fighting. In particular, he should get to the capital Sanaa and Marib, exploring all options to prevent a deadly showdown. He should also articulate a strategy for ending the wider war, given the failure of past approaches.

Developments in al-Bayda are arguably as important to the balance of power as the Red Sea coast battles in 2018 and the Huthi breakthroughs in northern Yemen in early 2020 and 2021 that brought the rebels to Marib’s gates. The Huthi consolidation in al-Bayda also makes deep-seated patterns clearer. The Huthis are running a well-coordinated and constantly evolving military campaign on several fronts. In parallel, they are reaching out to local tribal leaders in an effort to negotiate their way into Marib. They are aided in these endeavours by infighting and institutional decay among the anti-Huthi forces on the ground and within the Saudi-led coalition that backs them. Inertia is setting in among foreign policymakers, who ran out of ideas some time ago and, in many cases, are losing interest in Yemen as other international priorities emerge. Many foreign officials working on Yemen appear unaware of the significance of the Huthis’ territorial gains. They still make pleas for an end to fighting and peace talks but lack a common and practicable vision for achieving either.

The al-Bayda consolidation appears to be the last step toward what could be a final battle defeating government-aligned forces in Marib city or at minimum encircling and isolating them. If the Huthis win this battle, they will become the unchallenged military and political hegemon in Yemen’s north, marking an endgame of sorts for the conflict’s current phase. But the war itself would not be over and nor would the Yemeni people’s suffering. The Huthis’ capture of Marib city in itself would likely send thousands fleeing from their homes. Moreover, the rebels would probably then push southward to confront the southern secessionists in a bid to seize the whole country or at least force the southerners into a deal favourable to the Huthis over a division of territory and spoils. Such an offensive would inaugurate a new phase of war, one in which the internationally recognised government would have a much smaller role and over which would-be outside mediators would have less influence.

The new UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, has his work cut out. He will need to do two things at once. First, he should quickly engage in face-to-face talks with the warring parties to explore all options to avert a battle for Marib city and, ideally, set the stage for a nationwide ceasefire and talks over a political settlement. The starting point would be to hear out, without necessarily accepting, the Huthis’ proposals and push the government to articulate a position of its own that reflects the reality of today’s power balance. At the same time, Grundberg and his office will have to forge consensus behind a broader mediation strategy tailored to the war’s current dynamics. As Crisis Group has argued in the past, such an approach needs to include a far wider range of actors in peace talks: Yemen’s war is a multiparty conflict, not a binary power struggle between the Huthis, on one side, and the government and its Saudi backers, on the other. Given the increasing importance of economic factors in the war, a new strategy also requires the UN team to form a dedicated unit tasked with integrating an economic pillar into the mission’s peacemaking.