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24 hours of violence in Yemen: how Biden should respond

A day of missile strikes, escalated land attacks, and a migrant disaster highlights the urgency for US engagement.

Analysis | Middle East

A fire broke out in one of Sanaa’s largest migrant detention facilities, killing more than a dozen and injuring over 170 people trapped at the time of the disaster, in the early afternoon of March 7. Houthi officials have not shared reports of deaths and injuries, nor have they disclosed the source of the fire. Nevertheless, interviews with migrants and bystanders present at the time detailed that Houthi forces fired projectiles that may have ignited the flames in an attempt to quell a protest among migrants over abusive treatment and the deplorable conditions of the overcrowded facility. There are also reports that an “increased security presence” of Houthi military officers has obstructed treatment of injured victims and removed some injured migrants to undisclosed locations.

This migrant disaster is the latest but not the first to occur in the Yemen War in Houthi-controlled territory. In August 2020, Houthi troops forced migrants in a Yemeni camp across the border into Saudi Arabia at gunpoint which led to confusion and militaries from both sides to fire on and kill unarmed civilian migrants. The surviving civilians were taken in by Saudi troops and relocated to similarly inhumane and inadequate holding facilities.

Yemen has in recent years become a common pathway for Ethiopian migrants to travel on their journey to Saudi Arabia in search of work opportunities. According to one unpublished report, about 90 percent of all 140,000 migrants who entered Yemen in 2019 were from Ethiopia. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the mobility restrictions put in place, migrant travel to Yemen fell by over two-thirds the following year. However, many Ethopians have remained trapped in holding facilities and endured heightened discrimination, being blamed as “carriers” of the virus. 

Saudi-led bombings targeted Sanaa in retaliation for recent Houthi missile strikes at the kingdom’s prominent oil facilities on the same day as the disastrous fire. While the Houthi bombings on Saudi territory were largely ineffective in disrupting oil production and supply, the international community and nations in the region decried the attacks and reprimanded Iran and the rebels. The Houthis have also ramped up land-based attacks in Yemen, targeting the Taiz region and Yemen’s oil-producing hub of Marib since February of this year. 

All of these developments do not bode well for the Biden administration’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the now six-year-old war and end the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. 

Changes in U.S. strategy under President Biden 

Thus far in his administration, President Biden has made addressing the war in Yemen and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia a top foreign policy priority. After announcing a suspension of certain arms sales (precision-guided munitions that have been used in bombing operations) worth $760 million and a halt to logistical and intelligence support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, he appointed Tim Lenderking as Special Envoy to Yemen, who immediately flew to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. He also reversed Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which had threatened the supply of humanitarian aid to civilians under Houthi-controlled territory. 

It is clear that Biden will put pressure on the coalition members to come to the table and forge a diplomatic solution with the help of the U.N. The first steps will be to “impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks,” something the U.N. has been trying to do for six painstaking years. 

A shifting landscape

Many in the Hadi unity government in Yemen likely see Biden’s moves to end U.S. support for the war as a bad omen for their political efforts and dealings with the Houthis.

They supported Saudi Arabia’s efforts to get Houthis designated as a terrorist group to deprive them of the resources needed to sustain their insurgency and maintain territorial control. But the suspension of U.S. arms sales and other support to the Saudi campaign makes it clear that Hadi and his regional backers cannot achieve a military solution to the war.

The Houthi leadership also understands the implication, which may be why they have escalated attacks on strategic fronts, notably the city of Marib which has seen heightened conflict and displacement of 15,000 civilians since the new year. The State Department has put out a statement demanding that the Houthis cease attacks on the city. It is unlikely that the Houthis will cease their offensive because the more territory, population, and resources under their control, the stronger position they will have in negotiations to end the war.

Some observers believe that Biden should be cautious and not stretch the limits of U.S. action. This is a Yemeni civil war in the most basic sense, and Washington’s efforts may only disrupt a future peace process. While Biden’s actions so far have put pressure on the Saudi-backed coalition to come to the table, they have only strengthened the Iran-backed Houthis over whom Biden may enjoy more limited leverage. Moreover, the Houthis have not demonstrated commitment to cease-fires thus far in the six year war and claim a divine right to rule which flies in the face of democratic principles.

There are diplomats working on Yemen and Middle East issues that view parallel diplomatic efforts between the United States and Iran and the Yemen diplomacy may have a complementary effect. Biden aims to renegotiate the Iran nuclear agreement which was abandoned by the Trump administration for a hardline approach including damaging economic sanctions. Iran must be held responsible for its role in Houthi war crimes and other organizations it supports that commit atrocities, as should Saudi Arabia. Yet, Trump’s hardline approach left the United States with limited mobility and no practical way to negotiate with Iran. There is a potential for good faith negotiations over Iran’s nuclear material production in coordination with Yemen war peace talks.

Outside of diplomatic arrangements, Biden could take a more combative approach around the recent Houthi attacks by pursuing more aggressive naval interdiction of Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen, as the United States has in the past. Effectively blocking arms shipments to the Houthis could increase security in Saudi Arabia and put pressure on the Houthis to consider a ceasefire.

Addressing the humanitarian crisis 

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen faces grim funding issues reported by the U.N. and a troubling history of obstruction of delivery efforts by Houthi forces. Human Rights Watch reported: “the wide range of obstacles they face, including hundreds of regulations severely restricting their work, lengthy delays in approving aid projects, the blocking of aid assessments to identify people’s needs, attempts to control aid monitoring, dictating or interfering with aid recipient lists to divert aid to authority loyalists, and violence against aid staff and their property.” In the middle of 2020, humanitarian assistance was further disrupted due to the the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent budget shortfalls in international assistance. 

Nevertheless, there is some chance of ameliorating the situation, as the director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, told the Associated Press on March 10. “We've turned a corner with the Houthis… in terms of cooperation, collaboration,” Beasley said. It is also important to address the issue of those mostly Ethopian migrants still trapped in Yemen and being held in Houthi-controlled territory. Only recently has the U.N. been able to discuss with the Houthis in Sanaa the resumption of the humane voluntary returns process of migrants to their home countries. The voluntary return program should be restarted and conditions in the holding facilities improved. 

Whatever policies the Biden administration’s new foreign policy team adopts in addressing U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and its participation in the Yemen war, it is vital that they do not oversimplify the multi-layered and multi-partied conflicts at hand. 

While a quick diplomatic solution between the two sides seems appealing, it would leave important voices out of negotiations and likely lead to more conflict. Biden should not try to take control of the situation but instead focus on bringing the parties to the table for talks mediated by the UN. In the meantime, Washington should continue to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its part in civilian deaths and the humanitarian disaster. It can and should take action to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the dystopian conditions of food and water insecurity, famine, widespread disease outbreaks, and the destruction of healthcare and transportation infrastructure. Lastly, It should work with the international community and UN to work towards stabilizing the Yemeni currency, supporting local governance, and defending human rights. 

Photo: akramalrasny via
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