After a brief lull in fighting, the rebels of the Yemeni Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, are closer than they have ever been to surrounding Marib city. The city, which is the capital of the governorate of the same name, is also the de-facto capital of Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG). The governorate is also home to much of Yemen’s oil and gas handling infrastructure, and the loss of Marib to Ansar Allah will cement Ansar Allah’s control of northwest Yemen.
Ansar Allah’s leadership knows that it must seize Marib governorate if it is to control northwestern Yemen and ensure its future economic viability. The fall of Marib city will also further de-legitimize the IRG, both domestically and internationally. For these reasons, Ansar Allah has launched multiple offensives in Marib.
The most recent large-scale offensive began in early 2021 (Arab News, February 9). During this offensive, Ansar Allah made considerable gains as its forces pushed to the western and southern outskirts of Marib city. In late February, Ansar Allah then sent strike teams into the city where they released prisoners from an IRG-controlled detainment facility (Hournews.net, February 22).
In response to this offensive, Saudi Arabia increased the tempo of its airstrikes and stepped in to ensure more aid was delivered to IRG-allied tribal militias. Due largely to fierce resistance by Abidah tribesmen, who are allied with the IRG, Ansar Allah failed to encircle Marib city. Ansar Allah forces also faced flanking attacks from forces aligned with the IRG and militant Salafis from the governorate of al-Baydah.  These attacks targeted Ansar Allah’s supply lines to newly acquired positions south of Marib. Despite these repelled attacks and a shortage of soldiers, Ansar Allah still consolidated control of much of the new territory around Marib city that it had seized.
Unravelling Ansar Allah’s Enemies
After Ansar Allah’s early 2021 offensive stalled, Ansar Allah’s leadership moved to secure the governorate of al-Baydah, located south of Marib. Al-Baydah is also Yemen’s keystone because it is located in the center of Yemen where it borders eight other governorates. However, al-Baydah is as difficult to secure as it is important. Ansar Allah has launched multiple offensives in al-Baydah over the last five years, but the group has failed to consolidate gains.
Beginning in April 2021, Ansar Allah nevertheless redoubled its efforts to gain control over most of al-Baydah. By mid-summer 2021, Ansar Allah had largely succeeded in establishing functional control over much of al-Baydah (al-Arab, September 18). This control, which should not be overstated, relies heavily on agreements that Ansar Allah has made with tribal elders and other local elites. Ansar Allah almost always pursues a dual track approach when it is on the offensive: negotiations with local stakeholders precede armed conflict and, if the negotiations initially fail, those negotiations continue alongside armed conflict. 
Negotiated settlements that aim to co-opt local stakeholders are fundamental to Ansar Allah’s strategy in much of northwest Yemen. Agreements with stakeholders are a force multiplier for Ansar Allah. The group deploys negotiating teams ahead of military actions, and these teams offer local elites’ financial incentives, influence, and even weapons if they agree to not fight Ansar Allah. Further, Ansar Allah uses its intelligence wing, which is staffed by well-trained officers from the former Political Security Bureau (PSB) and National Security Bureau (NSB), to gather incriminating evidence (real or fabricated) on individual elites. Those who are targeted are forced to make agreements with Ansar Allah. 
In short, Ansar Allah tries to unravel its enemies from the inside before it takes kinetic military action. This is the approach that it has used in much of al-Baydah with notable successes. Ansar Allah now controls most of al-Baydah. Most critically, it has eliminated the threat posed to its forces operating in southern Marib. This has allowed Ansar Allah to launch attacks in the gas rich governorate of Shabwa, located east of Marib (Masrawy, September 21).
Tightening the Noose on Marib City
In September, Ansar Allah forces began operating in western Shabwa (Middle East Eye, September 24). Control of Shabwa, which, like Marib, is home to vital energy infrastructure, is currently divided among forces loyal to the IRG and those loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Ansar Allah is taking full advantage of these rivalries which have alienated many Shabwa elites.
If Ansar Allah holds onto western Shabwa, it will be able to hamper IRG supply lines and protect those forces by maneuvering into positions southeast of Marib city. The move into Shabwa is also designed to protect Ansar Allah’s own supply lines that now run through northern al-Bayda and southern Marib. The supply lines cross through complex terrain that makes it difficult for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) to target convoys.
Ansar Allah knows that seizing Marib will be militarily and politically costly. Thus, Ansar Allah will likely encircle the city. Such a move will further embarrass the IRG while still leaving the IRG to manage the humanitarian crisis that will result from partial or complete encirclement. Marib city and outlying settlements are home to at least a million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Encirclement will also limit damage to the city and its infrastructure. If the city is forcibly taken, Ansar Allah will lose the opportunity to bring local elites on side. For much of the last two years, the leadership of Ansar Allah has been negotiating with Marib-based elites in an attempt to further fracture support for the IRG and lay the groundwork for the offensive that is now underway.
Saudi Arabia is again trying to help the IRG and allied forces hold their lines with increased air support and funding. However, air support and payouts are not enough to stop Ansar Allah from gaining ground. At best, increased air support may force Ansar Allah to slow its offensive as it reroutes supply lines and conceals positions. The return on increases in funding to tribes allied with the IRG is marginal. Ironically, it is Ansar Allah that often benefits from the funds as tribesmen purchase goods and materiel from brokers and merchants linked with Ansar Allah. 
It is likely that Ansar Allah will encircle Marib city. If this happens, there will be a renewed push by the Ansar Allah leadership to negotiate some kind of power sharing agreement with Marib’s tribal elite, thereby bypassing the IRG. If the IRG fails to stop the encirclement and capture of Marib, its days as a viable power in Yemen will be numbered.
Author interview with Yemen based analyst April 2021.
Author interview with former Government of Yemen official, August 2021.
Author interview with former Government of Yemen official September 2021; author interview with Yemen based security expert, August 2021.
Author interview with Yemen based analyst, September 2021