MARIB, YEMEN — The Saudi-led Coalition escalated its military operations in Yemen over the weekend, targeting Nihm, Jawf, Marib and Bayda with a barrage of indiscriminate airstrikes that left tens of civilians dead and caused a new wave of displacement.
On Thursday, the coalition and its allies launched a new military campaign against the Nihm District, 25 miles east of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. The attack came just hours after Mahdi al-Mashat, Ansar Allah’s (the Houthis’ political bloc) president of the Supreme Political Council and other officials in the Sana’a met with the EU, French and Dutch ambassadors to Yemen.
The coalition claims that its military operations came in retaliation for a missile attack on an army base in Marib that killed over 100 coalition soldiers over the weekend. The Houthis, who generally take responsibility for attacks on the coalition, have denied they were involved in the attack, while many Yemenis, including those that support the Saudi-led Coalition, have accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of being behind the bombing in Marib. While the UAE is the leading partner to Saudi Arabia in the coalition, the UAE and Saudi governments have increasingly been at loggerheads over their conflicting interests in Yemen, conflicts that have, in the past, ended in violence.
During a meeting with UN Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, al-Mashad warned that the recent escalation, will, if it continues, end ongoing peace initiatives and lead to dangerous results in light of the changes in the region. On Friday night, backed by heavy artillery, Yemen’s pro-Houthi armed forces began a long-awaited offensive in concert with residents in Nihm.
Al-Mashat’s peace initiative, which followed attacks on two Saudi Arabia oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, saw an end to all retaliatory missile and drone attacks against the Saudi monarchy by Houthi forces. Al-Sheik Yayah al-Raie, the head of parliament, said that Al-Mashat faces enormous public pressure over his initiative to stop retaliatory attacks against the coalition while Saudi jets continue to bomb Yemen daily without response.
On Sunday, the ambassadors of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France warned in a joint statement against the recent military escalation, saying that it has led to the killing of civilians and the displacement of families. The statement warned of what it described as a “decline in progress made in stopping the escalation.”
“The hard-earned progress that Yemen has made on de-escalation is very fragile. Such actions can derail this progress,” UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths said, urging both sides to “redirect efforts from the battlefield to political dialogue.”
EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement late Sunday that “all parties should show restraint and engage constructively with the UN Special Envoy to end the conflict.” “The EU,” Stano said, “will continue supporting the UN in achieving this with all the tools at its disposal.”
The battle for Nihm, the gateway to Sana’a
Nihm lies just east of Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sana’a and is one of the most strategically important battlefields in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has thus far relied on heavy bombing of the city to pave the way for the advance of heavily armored mechanized ground units. By nightfall last Thursday, the noise of Saudi Apache helicopters, artillery and gunfire echoed throughout the city.
However, Yemen’s Army, loyal to the Houthis, has gained ground in the district where rugged mountains make it difficult for even the most technologically proficient armies to make progress. Now, the whole region, which spans over nearly 1,900 miles, remains under Houthi control, assuring that the key gateway to the capital is fully secured. At least 2,000 coalition fighters have been captured and 400 have been killed according to Houthi military sources.
The past weeks have seen the intensity of the battles near Nihm increase. According to Houthi officials, besieged forces have withdrawn and others have surrendered. By the early morning hours of Friday, they announced full control of the Nihm front, ending one of the most extended rounds of conflict with Saudi forces, as well as securing one of the most dangerous fronts near the capital, Sana’a.
By Sunday, Houthi units circumvented the front towards the eastern Al-Jawf junction, cutting the supply lines to Saudi-backed militias from the town of Marib, the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party.
Now, Houthi forces and their allies are fighting on the outskirts of Marib after capturing a number of villages, including Mafrag al-Jawf and Serwah, both under coalition control for four years. Houthi leader Mohammed al-Houthi confirmed in a tweet that the army “achieved a great victory against coalition fighters on the most important front in Sanaa,” in reference to Nihm front.”
In a report published Friday, the International Crisis Group said the “Houthis appeared to be making the biggest gains on the battlefield.” The think-tank warned that if the renewed fighting spread, it would represent “a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war.” The advance came despite extensive airstrikes by Saudi coalition warplanes supporting their fighters on the ground amid a mass offensive against the Houthis.
On Sunday, activists released a video showing several of the top military commanders of the Houthi-allied Yemeni army visiting military sites in Jawf province. The footage showed Maj. Gen. Abu Ali al-Hakim, Chief of Military Intelligence, touring sites in the Nihm, Majzar and Marib districts.
Marib tribesmen, who see the Houthi routing of Saudi forces as a victory, held a meeting in Sana’a calling on the leaders of the Islah party to call upon their fighters to safely exit from the region. They also called on Saudi-backed militias to leave the Marib Province and hand over all the directorates to their residents peacefully, promising to expel them by force if they refused.
Saudi forces have called their defeat in the face of the Houthi advance a “tactical withdrawal” amid scathing criticism and sarcasm by activists and media pundits who are expressing concerns over what they consider a rolling back of five years of coalition operations.
Feature photo | Houthi fighters gather during a mobilization of allied troops near Sana’a, Yemen, Aug. 1, 2019. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.