Yemen's 'sons of the desert' fight to save homes from Houthi offensive

The loss of Marib would be a heavy blow to the Yemeni government as it combats the Houthis' strategy of exhausting its resources

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Peering through binoculars, a Yemeni commander scans a forbidding desert moonscape for Houthi rebels, who are ramping up an offensive to seize the strategic oil-rich region of Marib.

The outcome of the scorched-earth battles raging around Marib city, the Arab coalition-backed Yemeni government's last northern stronghold, could significantly alter the course of a conflict now in its seventh year.

The loss of Marib, gripped by a worsening humanitarian crisis, would be a heavy blow to the government, giving the Iran-backed rebels more leverage in any future negotiations or even spur them to push farther south, observers say.

Hundreds of combatants have been killed since the large-scale offensive began in February, according to local sources.

Loyalist commanders say the rebels are sending wave after wave of fighters towards front lines around Marib city, the regional capital, from seemingly inexhaustible reserves.

"The Houthi strategy is … aimed at exhausting [us]," a Yemeni commander told AFP at the sand-swept Al Kanais battlefront in the north of the city, where loyalist soldiers crouched in sandbag-ringed foxholes and heavy machine guns were mounted on the rear of pickup trucks.

In a pattern emerging across numerous front lines, the commander said the Houthis are pushing young recruits, many of them children, with the goal of wearing out loyalist forces and depleting their ammunition.

Gun battles that last for hours are typically followed by a brief lull to collect dead bodies.

Then a more lethal wave of experienced Houthi fighters moves in under the cover of constant shelling, the commander said of a rebel strategy that is heaping pressure on loyalist forces.

"The Houthis don't care how many of their men die," he said, a point echoed by other Yemeni officials, including Marib's governor, Sultan Al Aradah.

"They are sacrificing the people of Yemen … but they will not be able to reach Marib no matter the price we have to pay," said the commander, who requested that his name be withheld.

'Sacrifice young men' 

Marib is already paying a huge price since the Houthis, who set their sights on taking the area last year, relaunched the offensive in February on the back of large reinforcements.

The city of Marib and some outlying areas make up the last pockets of government-held territory in the north, the rest of which is under rebel control, including the capital Sanaa.

Non-aligned observers of the conflict are alarmed at the high casualties around Marib, with one international official saying "the Houthis seem to have a lot of fighters to throw into the battle".

"At the end of the day, the Houthis will say, 'We still have fighters … and we can sacrifice people and young men'," the official said.

An AFP journalist travelled to Marib from Saudi Arabia in an Apache helicopter at the invitation of the Riyadh-led military coalition battling the rebels.

The low-flying aircraft hovered above sprawling oilfields, a natural gas bottling plant and a modern dam that supplies fresh water to the parched region, assets that make Marib a prized target.

The city itself is splashed with posters of fallen commanders and brimming with checkpoints that guard against Houthi infiltrators and sleeper cells.

Marib is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians uprooted by the conflict – and they face the prospect of being displaced again in a country with fewer and fewer safe havens.

"My husband has lost his mind" because of war and constant displacement, said Hala Al Aswad, 40, a mother of four sheltering in Al Suweida, one of the nearly 140 camps that have sprang up in Marib.

"He keeps beating the children."

The escalation in hostilities displaced 13,600 people in Marib this year, according to the UN refugee agency, putting a heavy strain on the city in the midst of a second coronavirus wave.

Lacking clean water and electricity, the makeshift settlements are overflowing and camp residents say they have repeatedly come under Houthi shelling.

One woman in Al Suweida, on the edge of the city, said she suffered a miscarriage because of the strains of war.

Another woman parted her toddler's hair to reveal a shrapnel wound on her scalp. As she spoke, one child held up a piece of twisted metal from what she said was the wreckage of a shell that hit her camp.

'Sons of the desert' 

"A ceasefire is necessary," said Arafat Asubari, 31, a camp resident and father of six.

If the fighting does not stop, he said, "we will all die here".

In March, the Houthis rejected the Saudis' call for a nationwide ceasefire. They have instead escalated missile and drone strikes deep in Saudi Arabia, which provides air support to Marib's loyalist forces.

Officials in Saudi Arabia criticise US President Joe Biden's decision to rescind a terrorist designation imposed on the Houthis by his predecessor Donald Trump, saying the concession has emboldened the rebels.

Western officials defend Mr Biden's decision, saying the designation, which came late in the Trump presidency, would have worsened Yemen's humanitarian crisis by further impeding access, while doing nothing to blunt the Houthis' military ambitions.

But one western official said the Marib offensive was a "big mistake" during direct talks with Houthi negotiators, drawing parallels with battleground stalemates during the First World War that added to widespread suffering.

The plea, the official said, fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Marib's tribes responded to local calls to send their men to reinforce front lines alongside the loyalists, with many saying that the terrain offered them an edge over the Houthis, known to be more adept at mountain warfare.

Describing themselves as "sons of the desert", many Marib tribesmen see a military advantage in a largely flat desert landscape dotted with scrubby bushes.

"Let them [Houthis] come," said the frontline commander, quoting a tribal elder from Marib. "We will kill them all."