The battle for the desert city of Yemen is now key to Iran and the US tension.


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The battle for an ancient desert city in war-torn Yemen has become the key to understanding the broader tensions that now inflame the Middle East and the challenges facing any government effort. of President Joe Biden to displace American troops. region of.

Fighting has broken out in the mountains outside Marib as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, attempt to seize the city, which is crucial to the country’s energy supply.

Saudi Arabia, which has led a military coalition since 2015 backing Sanaa’s government-in-exile, has launched one airstrike after another to slow the Houthis’ advance toward Marib. The Houthis have retaliated with drone and missile strikes deep in Saudi Arabia, affecting global oil markets.

The battle for Marib will likely determine the outline of any political settlement in Yemen’s second civil war since the 1990s. By taking over the Houthis, the rebels can seize that advantage in negotiations and even continue further south. If Marib is in the hands of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, it will perhaps save its only stronghold while secessionists challenge its authority elsewhere.

The fighting is also putting pressure on America’s most powerful of the Arab Gulf allies and entangling any US return to the Iran nuclear deal. It is even complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to slowly move massive US military deployments to the Middle East to counter what it sees as the emerging threat from China and Russia.

Losing Marib would be “the latest bullet to the head of an internationally recognized government,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. “It will set the stage for the dismemberment of the Yemeni state. You are facing a generation of instability and humanitarian crisis. It will also seek a theater free for all for regional meddling. ”

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THE ANCIENT OASIS BECOMES THE FRONT OF THE WAR

Located 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Sanaa, Marib sits on the edge of the Empty Quarter Desert of the Arabian Peninsula, at the foot of the Sarawat Mountains that run along the Red Sea. It is believed to be the home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba., who gave King Solomon riches of spices and gold. In the Qur’an, it was the site of massive floods that accompanied the collapse of its old dam.

The disaster that grips the city today is entirely man-made. More than 800,000 refugees fleeing the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 and the war that followed increased the city’s population, according to the UN refugee agency.

Taking Marib, or cutting it another way, would represent a great prize for the Houthis. It is home to oil and gas fields in which international companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA have interests. Marib’s natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once provided 40% of Yemen’s electricity. The modern Marib Dam is a key freshwater source for a parched nation, though it never fully developed, even in peacetime.

When Saudi Arabia entered the Yemen war in 2015 on the side of its government-in-exile, the kingdom allied itself with the Marib tribes, who for a long time perceived that Sanaa and the Houthis were disenfranchising them. Another major political power was Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party that is the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These disparate forces provided a lifeline for Yemen’s embattled exiled government, already facing pressure from allied secessionists in the south.

For a time, beginning in the fall of 2019, Saudi Arabia reached détente with the Houthis, said Ahmed Nagi, a non-Yemeni-resident expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Citing two Houthi officials familiar with the discussions, Nagi said that a secondary channel agreement caused both the Saudis and the rebels to refrain from attacking populated areas.

But when the Houthis began to re-enter Marib, the Saudis resumed a heavy bombing campaign.

For the Houthis, “they believe they gain more from war than from peace talks,” Nagi said. For the Saudis, “if they lose Marib, they will have no cards on the negotiating table.”

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YEMEN CAUGHT IN REGIONAL VISE

The escalation of the conflict around Marib coincides with major changes in US policy toward war. The administration of President Donald Trump had declared the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization”, following a campaign by Saudi Arabia supporting the measure.

Biden rescinded the Houthi terrorist designation after taking office. He also announced that the United States would stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s offensive combat operations in Yemen, saying: “This war has to end.”

But the fighting over Marib has only escalated even as the Saudis recently offered a ceasefire deal.. Iran’s frustration over the Biden administration’s failure to quickly lift sanctions has contributed to “an intensification of group attacks in Iraq, and the same in Yemen,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an Iranian academic at the Royal United. Services Institute of Great Britain.

“Iran is trying to send a message to the United States,” Tabrizi said. “A message that the status quo is not sustainable.”

As experts debate how much control Iran has over the Houthis, rebels increasingly launch bomb-laden drones previously linked to Tehran deep in the kingdom. Those attacks included a drone that crashed into a parked airliner. and others aimed at major oil facilities, temporarily shaking up energy prices.

“Unfortunately, the removal of the Houthis from the list (of foreign terrorist organizations) by the US administration appears to have been misinterpreted by the Houthis,” the Saudi government said in a statement to The Associated Press. “This misinterpretation of the measure has led them, with the support of the Iranian regime, to increase hostilities.”

Since the war began, the Houthis have launched more than 550 bomb-laden drones and more than 350 ballistic missiles toward Saudi Arabia, the kingdom said. While that has caused damage, injuries and at least one death, the war in Yemen has reportedly killed more than 130,000 people.. Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly criticized internationally for airstrikes that kill civilians and embargoes that exacerbate hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.

And although Biden has withdrawn support, US-made aircraft and ammunition sold to Saudi Arabia still target Yemen. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has linked the kingdom’s arming with the United States, allowing the war to take place.

“I’m asking the Americans this question: did they know what would happen to the Saudis the day they were given the green light to enter the Yemen war?” Khamenei asked in a speech on March 21. “Did you know that you are sending Saudi Arabia into a quagmire?”

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US MIDDLE EAST DEPLOYMENTS

Biden’s efforts to end America’s involvement in the Yemen war come as his administration tries to re-enter Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. The indirect talks began on Tuesday in Vienna.

“Iranians are eager to exchange their Yemen card for something more durable,” said al-Iryani, a researcher at the Sanaa Center.

Such an arrangement could be tailored to American interests. Biden’s Defense Department is studying the redeployment of troops, particularly those to the Middle East, amid what experts call the “great power conflict” the United States faces with China and Russia..

Withdrawing troops from the Middle East could bolster forces the United States may need elsewhere. However, this is probably easier said than done.

In Yemen alone, all US presidents since George W. Bush have launched drone attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long regarded by Washington as the most dangerous branch of the militant group. Biden himself has yet to launch any such attacks, although the group still operates in the east of the country.

US troops remain in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia rely on US forces stationed in their countries as a counterweight to Iran.

The US military sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 2019, deploying anti-missile batteries amid tensions with Iran. However, US forces recently reduced that presence.

“The kingdom believes that the US presence in the region can help promote security and stability in the region by supporting allies facing transnational threats that are primarily sponsored by the Iranian regime,” the Saudi government said. It did not comment specifically on redeployment.

Overall, US forces will remain in the Middle East as it remains crucial to global energy markets and includes major choke points at sea for global trade, said Aaron Stein, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute based in Philadelphia. However, the appearance of those forces will change as the United States weighs how to counter Iran through a return to the nuclear deal, he said.

“It does not solve the Iranian problem,” Stein said. “It puts us in a place to handle it, like we’re in hospice.”

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Follow Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP and www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

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