Already displaced once in Yemen’s grinding civil war, Mohammed Ali Saleh fled with his pregnant wife and their three children to central Marib province last year to seek refuge in a region that has known relative peace and stability because of well-protected oil fields nearby.
But now the fighting is moving towards them again, threatening hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the governorate – home to about 800,000 IDPs.
Iran-linked Houthi rebels are pushing to capture the province from Yemen’s internationally recognised government in an attempt to complete their control over the northern half of Yemen.
If they succeed, the Houthis could claim a strategic win after a largely stalemated battle in almost seven years of war. The sounds of war terrify Saleh and his family.
“It’s a nightmare we are experiencing every night,” he said from a camp for the displaced that had previously escaped violence.
The Houthis launched their Marib offensive in February. The new campaign, combined with increasing Houthi missile and drone attacks on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, comes as the Biden administration tries to relaunch talks on ending the conflict in Yemen – the Arab world’s poorest country that has been pushed to the brink of famine by the bloodshed.
The Houthi push in Marib also threatens to ignite more fighting elsewhere in Yemen. Government-allied forces, aided by a Saudi-led coalition, have ramped up attacks in other areas recently in an apparent attempt to force the Houthis to spread out their resources and make them more vulnerable.
‘A fateful battle for the Houthis’
The Marib offensive “is a fateful battle for the Houthis”, said political analyst Abdel-Bari Taher. “It will determine the future of their ability to rule” in northern Yemen.
Marib houses a key oil refinery that produces 90 percent of the country’s liquefied petroleum gas, which is used for cooking and heating in almost all Yemeni households. Severe fuel shortages already plague many areas across the country.
The fighting in Marib could displace at least 385,000 people, according to the UN migration agency. Four displacement camps in the province have been abandoned since the start of the offensive, said Olivia Headon of the International Organization for Migration in Yemen.
Yemen has been convulsed by civil war since 2014 when the Houthis took control of the capital of Sanaa and much of the northern part of the country, forcing the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the US, entered the war months later to try to restore Hadi to power. Despite a relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has deteriorated into a deadlock, killing about 130,000 people and spawning the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Biden administration last month officially withdrew its backing for the coalition but said the US would continue to support Saudi Arabia as it defends itself against Houthi attacks.
The latest offensive has been among the fiercest, with the Houthis moving heavy weapons towards Marib. They have yet to achieve major progress amid stiff resistance from local tribes and government forces aided by air raids from the coalition.
But the fighting is coming close to civilians and the displacement camps. Houthi forces have hit the provincial capital, also called Marib, and its outskirts with ballistic missiles, explosives-laden drones and shelling, according to aid workers.
Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, the provincial governor, told reporters that the coalition’s air raid helped fend off the Houthis. “Without their support, the situation would be very different,” he said.
Hundreds of fighters, most of them Houthi rebels, have been killed in the Marib campaign, according to officials from both sides.
Houthi leaders have portrayed the offensive as a religious battle, a sign of its significance for them. The rebels have tried to take Marib for years, seizing towns and districts in neighbouring provinces.
“There are probably multiple agendas at play in Marib but the most urgent is the Houthis’ belief they can take Marib city and end the war for the north while improving their economic sustainability and their bargaining position with Saudi Arabia,” said Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group.
But their offensive could be backfiring.
Government-backed forces have managed to retake swaths of territory from the Houthis in Hajjah and Taiz provinces. The battle for Marib could also be used as a justification for Hadi’s government to back out of previous partial ceasefires, such as the 2018 UN-brokered deal that ended fighting for the key Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, which handles about 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports.
The rebels began the Marib offensive shortly after President Joe Biden removed them from a US terrorism list, reversing a Trump administration decision that had caused a widespread outcry from the UN and aid groups on humanitarian grounds.
The escalation has left international observers at a loss on how to find a starting point for a long-sought peace. Tim Lenderking, US envoy to Yemen, noted: “Tragically, and somewhat confusingly for me, it appears that the Houthis are prioritising a military campaign.” He has urged them to agree to a recent ceasefire proposal.
Mohammed Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, told the rebel-run Al Masirah satellite TV channel that they were studying the proposal, but he also criticised it.
He alleged it did not offer an acceptable way to end the blockade imposed by the coalition on rebel-held areas, a reference to the closure of Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and restrictions on cargo ships at Hodeidah.
On Wednesday, the Houthi spokesman told Al Jazeera that the Saudi-led blockade must be lifted before a ceasefire agreement could be reached.
“The humanitarian side must be separated from the military one,” Abdulsalam said amid UN calls for an immediate halt to the fighting.
“We were asked for a comprehensive ceasefire… but the first stage is to open the sea ports and airports, then go towards the process of a strategic ceasefire, which is stopping the strikes, missiles and drones.
“When the sea port and the airport open, we’re ready to negotiate.”
At the same time, the Houthis have intensified their missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. The coalition said the rebels had been encouraged by Biden’s moves, including his decision to halt US support for the coalition in a dramatic break with the joint air campaign against them.
The warring parties have not held substantive negotiations since 2019. A deal brokered by the UN in 2018 after talks in Sweden has largely gone nowhere; only one of its components – prisoner exchanges – has made any progress after multiple rounds of talks.
Meanwhile, displaced families in Marib live in fear of what comes next.
Saleh, 29, and his family fled his native Sanaa in 2017 for the city of Hazm, the provincial capital of Jawf, before the Houthis overran it last year. That forced them to flee to Marib, and they settled in one of the 125 IDP camps there, according to the IOM.
“We are tired. We have been displaced several times,” said Saleh’s wife Fatima, who gave birth to their youngest daughter in the camp.