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An offensive by Yemeni rebels poses a threat to camps for refugees fleeing the conflict.

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An offensive by Yemeni rebels poses a threat to camps for refugees fleeing the conflict.
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An offensive by Yemeni rebels poses a threat to camps for refugees fleeing the conflict.

An offensive by Yemeni rebels poses a threat to camps for refugees fleeing the conflict.

 

Mohammed Ali Saleh, who had already been displaced by Yemen’s raging civil war, fled to central Marib province last year with his pregnant wife and three children to seek asylum in an area that had undergone some relative peace and stability due to well-protected oil fields nearby.

However, the battle has shifted back to them.

The Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, are attempting to take control of the province from the internationally recognised government in order to complete their control of Yemen’s northern half. If they succeed, the Houthis would have claimed a strategic victory after a largely stalemated war that has lasted nearly seven years.

Saleh and his family are terrified by the sounds of fighting.

“Every night is a nightmare for us,” he said from a camp for displaced people who had previously fled abuse.

In February, the Houthis launched their Marib offensive. The new campaign comes as the Biden administration seeks to relaunch talks on ending the conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest region, which has been forced to the brink of famine by the bloodshed.

The Houthi offensive in Marib also has the potential to spark further conflict elsewhere in Yemen. Government-allied forces have increased attacks in other areas recently, supported by a Saudi-led alliance, in an apparent effort to force the Houthis to spread out their resources and make them more vulnerable.

According to political analyst Abdel-Bari Taher, the Marib offensive is “a pivotal fight for the Houthis.” “It will decide their ability to rule in northern Yemen in the future.”

Marib is home to a major oil refinery that produces 90% of Yemen’s liquefied petroleum gas, which is used in almost every household for cooking and heating. Many parts of the world are already experiencing severe fuel shortages.

According to the United Nations Migration Agency, the fighting in Marib may result in the displacement of at least 385,000 people. According to Olivia Headon of the International Organization for Migration in Yemen, four refugee camps in the province have been abandoned since the offensive began.

Yemen has been torn apart by civil war after the Houthis seized control of Sanaa, the capital, and most of the northern part of the country in 2014, forcing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government to move to the south and then to Saudi Arabia.

Months later, the Saudi-led alliance, supported by the US at the time, joined the war to restore Hadi to power. Despite a relentless air campaign and ground combat, the war has devolved into a stalemate, with almost 130,000 people killed and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Last month, the Biden administration announced its withdrawal from the coalition, but stated that the US would continue to support Saudi Arabia in its fight against Houthi attacks.

The Houthis’ most recent offensive has been one of the most fierce, with heavy arms being moved toward Marib. They have yet to make significant progress due to fierce opposition from local tribes and government forces, which has been supported by coalition airstrikes.

However, the fighting is getting closer to civilians and refugee camps. According to aid workers, Houthi forces have bombarded the provincial capital, also known as Marib, and its suburbs with ballistic missiles, explosives-laden drones, and shelling.

The provincial governor, Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, told reporters that the coalition’s airstrikes had helped fend off the Houthis. “The situation would be very different if it weren’t for their support,” he said.

According to officials on both sides, the Marib operation has killed hundreds of soldiers, the majority of whom are Houthi rebels.

The offensive has been described by Houthi leaders as a religious war, suggesting its importance to them. For years, the insurgents have attempted to take Marib by capturing towns and districts in neighboring provinces.

“There are likely many agendas at play in Marib, but the most pressing is the Houthis’ expectation that they can take Marib city and end the war in the north while strengthening their economic sustainability and negotiating position with Saudi Arabia,” said Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group.

However, their offensive could backfire.

In the provinces of Hajjah and Taiz, government-backed forces were able to reclaim territories from the Houthis. The war for Marib may also be used by Hadi’s government to justify its withdrawal from previous partial cease-fires, such as the 2018 United Nations-brokered agreement that ended fighting for the main Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida, which handles roughly 70% of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports.

The rebels launched the Marib offensive soon after President Joe Biden removed them from a US terrorism list, reversing a Trump administration decision that drew widespread criticism from the United Nations and aid organizations.

International observers are baffled as to how to find a starting point for the long-awaited peace. “Tragically, and rather perplexingly for me, it seems that the Houthis are prioritizing a military campaign,” said Tim Lenderking, the US envoy to Yemen. He’s pleading with them to accept a new cease-fire proposal.

The Houthis’ spokesman, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, told the rebel-run al-Masirah satellite TV channel that the proposal was being studied, but he also criticized it. He said it didn’t provide an appropriate way to end the coalition’s blockade of rebel-held areas, referring to the closure of Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and cargo ship restrictions at Hodeida.

Simultaneously, the Houthis have increased their missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. The rebels were motivated by Biden’s actions, according to the coalition, including his decision to end US support for the coalition in a dramatic break with the joint air campaign against them.

Since 2019, the warring parties have not held substantive talks. After several rounds of negotiations, the United Nations brokered a settlement in 2018 after talks in Sweden; only one of its elements, prisoner exchanges, has made little progress.

Meanwhile, in Marib, displaced families live in constant fear of what will happen next.

Saleh, 29, and his family fled Sanaa in 2017 for Hazm, the provincial capital of Jawf, which was overrun by the Houthis last year. According to the IOM, this forced them to move to Marib, where they lived in one of the 125 refugee camps there.

“We’re exhausted. Saleh’s wife Fatima, who gave birth to their youngest daughter in the camp, said, “We’ve been displaced many times.”

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