President Biden’s administration announced on Thursday that it will end U.S. support for offensive Saudi military action against Yemen. Biden will also appoint Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen, previously deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
The announcement partially fulfills the agenda of years of effort by activists, as well as a bipartisan push from Congress that President Trump vetoed. Yet it is not yet clear what the new policy will entail. The United States is not only complicit in supporting Saudi air strikes, but also enforcing the blockade that has put millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation. Who will determine if an action is offensive, the US or Saudi Arabia? And how will it be defined? The Saudis, for instance, argue that their entire war efforts are defensive.
Biden’s team may see the withdrawal of U.S. support for offensive military action as fulfilling his stated commitment. Yet the move is insufficient to address U.S. complicity in Yemen’s misery. Biden must insist that Saudi Arabia and the UAE fully withdraw from Yemen and end their support for warring factions. Foreign support tends to lengthen civil wars, and given the external resources supporting opposing sides in Yemen, the war is not going to end anytime soon. As long as the U.S. remains the preeminent military force in the region and its main supplier of weapons, America is culpable for Yemen’s destruction.
Yemenis are aware of this, even if many Americans are not. The war is known as the Saudi-American war in Yemen. The blockade of the Houthi-controlled ports is referred to as the American blockade. Starting in mid December 2020, an online campaign circulated on Twitter in Arabic with the hashtag “Yes to the end of the American blockade of Yemen.”
Civil wars only typically end when the warring parties run out of the resources to continue, or one side decisively defeats the other(s); neither of these outcomes is likely to occur in Yemen without decisive action from the U.S.
Cutting off foreign funding
The Saudis support the internationally recognized but weak and exiled government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Although in 2015, the UAE joined the Saudi-led coalition in support of the Hadi government as well, they eventually moved to support the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
The STC is a coalition of separatist forces pushing for the independence of south Yemen, which was a sovereign nation prior to the unification of Yemen in 1990. The Hadi government wishes to reestablish control over all of Yemen, a goal incompatible with that of the STC, meaning that the Saudis and Emiratis are now supporting opposing sides, despite their pledge to work together under the largely ineffective 2019 Riyadh Agreement. The Iranians support the Houthis, a movement based in northern Yemen whose existence and belligerence predated Iranian support, but has grown more powerful under increased partnership with Iran.
For Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the Houthis’ missiles imperil his subjects’ safety. Although initially the threat was limited to areas near the border, the Houthis have fired rockets deep into Saudi Arabia itself, even threatening Riyadh, over 600 miles away from the border with Yemen.
Saudi Arabia could try to neutralize the Houthis by investing in development in order to undermine the movement’s narrative of identitarian grievance and ability to recruit impoverished supporters. In 2018 the war was estimated to have cost $100 billion, by now, the price may have doubled; investing in northern Yemen would cost significantly less. Yet Saudi Arabia would have to resist its usual impulse of using foreign investment as a means of spreading Wahhabism. Resisting Saudi efforts to spread Wahhabism in their territory was one of the Houthis’ early calls to action, as many members of the movement are Zaydi Shi’a.
Transitioning from airstrikes to aid would require MBS to admit defeat, a humiliation that the young prince appears unwilling to stomach. MBS has trumpeted national pride, and he may fear that ending the war on Yemen could make him appear weak. Despite frequent reports that the Saudis are eager to end their failed war, especially following their unilateral ceasefire in April 2020, the cost of the military campaign has not yet become prohibitive.
Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi has pursued a characteristically clever strategy in Yemen. After the negative press associated with the UAE’s military presence there began to tarnish the UAE’s public image, MBZ withdrew most of the Emirati military in late 2019.
Yet the UAE continues to occupy the Balhaz port in the southern province of Shabwah, preventing Yemen’s only liquid natural gas plant from reopening. The UAE also maintains control of the Al Rayan airport in Hadramawt, using it as a prison and torture complex. Meanwhile the UAE continues to support the STC as an investment. An independent south Yemen beholden to the Emiratis would suit MBZ’s agenda. The UAE has aggressively expanded its regional military footprint, building bases in Eritrea and Libya, as well as on the Yemeni island of Socotra, in an effort to transcend its limited territory in the Persian Gulf.
Biden needs to make MBS and MBZ understand that they can stay involved in the war in Yemen, or they can maintain a relationship with the United States. They cannot have both.
Meanwhile, ongoing U.S. and Saudi antagonism contribute to Iran’s determination to cause headaches for its adversaries by partnering more closely with the brutal Houthi movement. The Trump administration’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization is unlikely to impact the Houthis because they are already isolated. Despite exceptions for aid and food, Iran and Syria demonstrate that humanitarian carve-outs do little to prevent sanctions from further immiserating the local population, while generally failing to compel the rulers to change their behavior.
The example of Libya demonstrates how an influx of additional resources can tilt the balance in a stalemated civil war. Although General Haftar had the backing of the UAE, Egypt, France, and Russia, he was ultimately defeated by Turkey’s decision to escalate its support for the Tripoli government. Syria offers a similar lesson, where the savagery of the Al-Assad regime, with Iranian and Russian support, allowed his government to reassert control. Yemen, like Libya and Syria, has become the tormented battleground upon which its powerful neighbors fight out their visions of regional dominance.
The fact that no foreign power has yet subjugated Yemen by force is not for lack of trying. Much of northern Yemen is mountainous. Like Afghanistan, Yemen already had a reputation as a graveyard of imperial dreams. Saudi Arabia failed to overwhelm the Houthis with superior firepower and funding. A conclusive military victory for any side seems improbable.
How to end the war?
Fully ending U.S. support for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen is an important first step for the Biden administration. Yet it will not be enough. If Biden tries to wash his hands of the Yemen issue simply by ending U.S. involvement, this will not remove the blood of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis already dead and dying.
Instead, Biden must require the Saudis and Emiratis to fully withdraw from Yemen and end their support for factions there. The Biden administration should also rejoin the JCPOA without imposing additional conditions, in order to move towards a functional relationship with Iran as quickly as possible. There is no more time to waste.