Saudis fight to turn the tide of Yemen’s civil war

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MARIB, Yemen—Enemy bullets fired over our heads. A barefoot Yemeni soldier who calls himself Fuad the Brave grabbed a rifle and fired back from behind a sand berm, targeting Iran-backed Houthi fighters a few hundred yards away.

The small desert outpost held by Fuad and a handful of sunburnt soldiers is on the frontline of Yemen’s civil war, which pits government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against allied Houthi rebels in Tehran.

Marib is one of the last major shrines available to the Yemeni government in the north of the country. “Either we win,” Fouad said, “or we die trying.”

Saudi Arabia and its allies, with their local proxies trying to hold their ground and Washington having reduced its support for the conflict, are struggling to turn the tide here, stepping up aerial bombardment and missile strikes.

Marib is one of the last major strongholds of Yemeni government forces in the north of the country.

A Yemeni soldier rides in the back of a truck towards the front line in Marib.

The Saudi-led coalition carried out about 700 airstrikes in February, according to the Yemen Data Project, a nonprofit that tracks the war in Yemen. That would make it the most intense period of shelling since 2018.

In the past four months, more than 1,500 Yemeni civilians have been killed or injured, up from 823 in the previous four months, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, which collects war information for the United Nations. Saudi coalition airstrikes are responsible for the vast majority of casualties, the group said.

A central goal of the airstrikes, according to Saudi officials: push back the Houthis and hurt them enough that they feel compelled to negotiate an end to the war. Peace talks have stalled for months as the Houthis attempt to capture Marib.

The United States and the UN have urged Saudi Arabia to ease its airstrikes. But officials in Riyadh and Yemen say they intend to hit the Houthis even harder.

“We must continue the fight,” said Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, the governor of Marib. His house was destroyed in September by two Houthi ballistic missiles. “It’s the right path, but it’s only the beginning.”

The governor of Marib, Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah.

The Houthis responded to Saudi and Emirati moves by launching missile and drone strikes targeting Gulf countries. They also fired more missiles at Marib, including a barrage of seven that crashed into the city on February 19 while a reporter and photographer from the Wall Street Journal was visiting.

The escalation in violence comes seven years after Saudi Arabia and a small group of allied nations launched a bombing campaign that Riyadh said would take just weeks to rout Houthi fighters who had taken the capital of Yemen, San’a, in a conflict that stemmed from the Arab Spring.

Instead, the war dragged on and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with the UN estimating that more than 377,000 people died as a result of the war, 70% of them children.

The war in Yemen has also given Iran an opening to turn unarmed Houthi fighters into one of Tehran’s most adept militant allies. The group can now fly advanced drones and fire long-range missiles capable of hitting the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from over 800 miles away.

While Saudi-backed fighters say they have made gains in recent weeks, the Houthis still control the country’s capital and much of the country’s northern highlands. The fractured Yemeni government and its allies retain fragile control in the south and east.

If the Houthis took Marib, it would give them effective control of all of northern Yemen, as well as the oil money they could use to continue funding their fight.

“If they control Marib, we will lose the war and lose security and stability in the region,” a senior Saudi official said.

Motaidi Ali Mansour, 9, was at risk of losing his leg after being hit by shrapnel from a Houthi missile, his father said.

Workers make prostheses at Marib General Hospital.

Officials in Marib, once a thriving oil-rich outpost, said more than two million people have sought refuge here, nearly 60 percent of the 3.5 million Yemenis displaced by the war. Most are housed in around 150 Spartan camps around Marib.

Arafat Al Subhari fled Sanaa with his wife and five children in 2017 after militants shot his father in the head, he said. They moved four times to different camps. They fled one as Houthi forces closed in and the other because it had been hit by Houthi missiles.

Mr. Subhari is so tired from running that he won’t move, even though he and his family live in a camp without running water or electricity. “It would be nice to have a safe place to live,” he said.

At Marib General Hospital, doctors treat victims of the fighting. Motaidi Ali Mansour, a 9-year-old boy, was at risk of losing his leg after being hit by shrapnel from a Houthi missile, according to his father, Amin Ali Mansour.

“The Houthis are like a cancer, and we have to get rid of them,” Mr. Mansour said.

In the next room, three wounded Yemeni soldiers say the war will not end until world leaders do more to stop Iran from helping the Houthis.

Osama Adel, a 27-year-old Yemeni soldier, dropped out of college in 2015 to fight and has been injured four times in seven years.

A camp near Marib hosts some of the more than two million displaced Yemenis who have sought refuge in the area.

Families visit a funfair in the center of Marib.

“My weapon was a pen, but now it’s a gun,” Mr Adel said from his hospital bed between breaths of oxygen from his mask after being shot by the Houthis. “They forced me to fight.”

The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of providing the Houthis with weapons, advisers and support which they have used to build and launch a growing array of drones and missiles targeting Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and ships off the Yemeni coast.

Iran is one of the few countries to maintain diplomatic relations with the Houthis. Tehran has denied supplying them with weapons.

The Houthis are focusing on Marib in a bid to deliver a debilitating blow to the Saudi-backed government. Saudi officials say the Houthis are refusing to negotiate as they try to seize Marib.

Nasr al-Din Amir, the Houthi deputy information minister, said the militants still held the advantage. “We are the ones making progress on the pitch,” he said. “They are trying to tell the world that they have shifted the balance of power in their favor, but that is a complete and utter lie.”

Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ali Al-Maqdashi, Yemen’s defense minister, is leading the fight for Marib from a war room carved deep into the side of a mountain – an effort to avoid Houthi missile strikes. He expressed no hope that the peace talks would end the war.

A Yemeni soldier walks through the desert near the Marib frontline.

“The Houthis will not accept peace,” he said. “We are not fighting the Houthis. We are fighting Iran.

Saudi Arabia is keeping a low profile on the front lines. To reduce the risk of being targeted, Saudi military advisers in Yemen are ditching their uniforms for the traditional ankle-length dresses commonly worn here.

On the borders of Marib, the Yemeni fighters are exhausted. The front lines in some places are little more than zigzag earthen berms fortified by canvas rice bags filled with sand. Most fights take place at night, when the scorching temperatures drop.

On a recent morning, a Saudi coalition fighter jet flew high overhead. A Houthi drone crashed into Yemeni military vehicles, setting some on fire. Yemeni fighters sought shelter from the sun wherever they could – on a makeshift platform set up in the branches of an acacia tree, under the truck carrying a missile launcher, behind a felled tree with a thin tarp Children’s Winnie the Pooh flapping in the light breeze.

As Houthi bullets streaked overhead, a barefoot fighter stood impassively with his back to the frontline as Yemeni officers rushed to a waiting pickup truck and drove away. full speed.

“God protect us,” the soldier said as Yemeni fighters along the dirt berm tried to hold the line.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

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