MARIB, Yemen—A detachment of Saudi-backed Yemeni soldiers—armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and a single tank—keep watch from a rock outcropping, scanning the vast expanse of desert below them for signs of activity by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters.
“They’re out there,” said Yemeni Maj. Gen. Ameen Alwaili. “They’re pushing in from three sides.”
This small outpost is on the front lines of a continuing battle between the Houthi rebels and Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government, which is trying to hold on to Marib, its last stronghold in the north of the country and site of a coveted oil refinery.
In recent weeks, Houthi forces, using armed drones, ballistic missiles and mortars, have moved within a few miles of the city.
If Marib falls, Yemeni government and Saudi officials warned, it would give the Houthis and their Iranian allies control of a strategically valuable area that could serve as a launchpad for continued strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry infrastructure and other targets.
Saudi and Yemeni officials said recent moves by President Biden to disentangle the U.S. from the grinding six-year civil war appear to have emboldened Houthi fighters. Last month, the Houthis launched more drone and missile strikes than in any other month during the conflict, U.S. officials say.
“The Houthis misunderstood Biden’s moves and saw them as a green light,” said a senior Saudi official.
Mr. Biden has scaled back U.S. support for the Saudi war effort and dispatched a special envoy to try to broker a cease-fire and eventual peace deal between the two sides. Ending Houthi strikes on Saudi Arabia is a central goal of Washington’s diplomatic push, U.S. officials said.
“If we cannot make progress now, the country will spiral into greater conflict and instability,” Tim Lenderking, the special U.S. envoy, said last week after presenting the Houthis with a new proposal to end the fighting. “Let us seize this moment.”
The war in Yemen has become a political albatross for Riyadh and Washington, with both trying to find an exit strategy from a conflict that has spawned what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Aid groups say diplomatic deadlock is deepening the crisis by holding up delivery of food and fuel needed to avert widespread famine in Yemen.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has been Riyadh’s most important ally on the ground in Yemen. He also reversed a last-minute Trump administration move to officially declare the Houthis terrorists and impose economic sanctions on key leaders of the group.
Aid groups have applauded that move, saying a terror designation would have made it impossible for them to work in Houthi-controlled areas.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent the Saudi military into Yemen in 2015 to support a weak Yemen government struggling to stop the Houthis. The intervention quickly became a military quagmire, Iran stepped up support for the Houthis and the rebels captured the splintered country’s capital.
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Errant airstrikes that killed thousands of women and children over the years have eroded Western backing for the Saudi effort. Under pressure, then-President Trump reduced U.S. support for Saudis in 2018 by curtailing aerial refueling for planes carrying out the airstrikes.
But he also agreed to some key requests from the Gulf nations. Shortly before leaving office, Mr. Trump signed off on multibillion-dollar arms deals for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, including more precision-guided missiles used in Yemen.
The new approach to Yemen is part of a broader Biden administration shift in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s support in Washington has plunged in recent years. The war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul fueled bipartisan discontent. Securing a peace deal in Yemen is one way U.S. officials say Riyadh can begin to repair its relationships in Washington.
The Pentagon is now focusing on providing assistance that’s defensive in nature, such as helping the Saudi military shoot down Houthi missiles and drones targeting the country.
The U.S. has also scaled back intelligence support for the Saudis. “It is more limited than it’s ever been,” one U.S. military official said.
More on Yemen’s Civil War
U.S. officials said surveillance flights over Yemen are more focused on the parallel threat posed by the country’s branch of al Qaeda, which is considered the most dangerous branch of the extremist group behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The U.S. has carried out scores of drone strikes over the past decade on al Qaeda forces in Yemen, where thousands of its members are believed to still operate. The U.S. will keep warning the Saudis of imminent Houthi rocket and drone strikes if they get intelligence on them, the official said.
While the U.S. is working to get out of Yemen, Iran is trying to deepen its reach, Saudi, Yemeni and U.S. officials say. The U.S. has repeatedly seized Iranian-made weapons off the coast of Yemen that American military officials said were sent by Tehran to aid Houthi forces.
Iran denies the American accusations.
U.S., Saudi and Yemeni officials also say Hasan Irlu, an Iranian military commander serving as Iran’s diplomat in Houthi-controlled Yemen, has brought a new level of battlefield sophistication to the Houthis.
Last December, the Trump administration accused Mr. Irlu of training Houthi fighters to use advanced weapons. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Mr. Irlu.
So far, the Houthis have rebuffed U.S. diplomatic pressure to agree to a cease-fire with Saudi Arabia, after which the Saudis would end their blockades of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the main gateway for humanitarian aid, and the Sana’a airport.
Houthi leaders have said they would only agree to a national cease-fire if the Saudis end the blockades first.
One Houthi official briefed on the continuing talks accused the U.S. of siding with Saudi Arabia by condemning Houthi missile and drone strikes on the Saudis.
“The U.S. doesn’t seem serious about ending the war in Yemen,” the official said. “When they show seriousness, we can meet and talk directly with them.”
Saudi officials want Mr. Biden to release his hold on the sale of precision-guided missiles, which they say are used only to defend their allies from Houthi attacks. U.S. officials expressed little openness to approving the sales, but suggested they might revisit the issue if Saudi Arabia disengages from Yemen.
From a command center bored into a gravel-covered hillside near Marib, Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Maqdishi, defense minister for the U.N.-backed government in Yemen, accused the Houthis of “using waves of soldiers like sheep.”
He said he hoped the U.S. would rethink its approach. “People trust the U.S. to stand with Saudi Arabia against Iran and its proxies,” he said. “We are putting our hope in that.”
—Saleh al-Batati in Oxford, England and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this article.
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