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Biden’s Yemen conundrum

Nine months into the Biden administration and its Yemen peace initiative, the momentum toward peace seems to have stalled.

Analysis | Middle East

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Riyadh on September 27 and was accompanied by US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. The visit highlighted the Biden Administration’s continued interest in ending the war in Yemen and constituted a high-level boost to Lenderking’s efforts in that vein. At the same time, the broader issues in US-Saudi relations, also on the agenda in Sullivan’s meetings in the kingdom, underscore the conflicting priorities in President Joe Biden’s foreign policy and compromise his peace efforts in Yemen.

Yemen war intensifies

Nine months into the Biden Administration and its Yemen peace initiative, the momentum toward peace seems to have stalled as the country experienced an intensely violent week. Fighting has recently intensified around the city of Marib and the Hodeida front on the Red Sea coast has been reactivated. Further, Houthis are once again employing drone strikes against Saudi Arabia while Saudi jets escalate their bombardment of the insurgents’ troops that are moving to encircle Marib from the south, albeit very slowly and at a very high casualty rate. To be sure, civilian casualties in and around the city have arguably been some of the worst since the war began, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations.

Critics of Biden’s policy cite that Washington is clinging to the security partnerships in the Gulf and preparing for a potential confrontation with China as evidence of the persistence of a cold war mentality.

Despite asserting that the United States was not giving up on conflict resolution, and specifically mentioning Yemen and Ethiopia in this context, Biden’s critics accuse him of doing exactly the opposite and charge that his “America is back” slogan is no different from his predecessor’s “America first.” Critics cite that Washington is clinging to the security partnerships in the Gulf and preparing for a potential confrontation with China as evidence of the persistence of a cold war mentality. The recent submarine deal with Australia, for example, prioritized an Anglo-Saxon alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia over a broader NATO/European entente, one that could not be guaranteed to go along with a forceful strategy in the Pacific.

US-Saudi tensions

The urge to end US involvement in Middle East wars—demonstrated by the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan—clashes with the expressed need to continue the global war on terror. This was a concern voiced by ranking military officers in their September 29th congressional testimony that al-Qaeda elements remain on the ground in Afghanistan. Indeed, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the organization’s strongest branch, remains very much a factor in Yemen; the continued US effort to confront it requires both the direct use of force and the assistance of friends and partners in the region. American officials have historically described Saudi Arabia as a partner in the war on terror, and the Biden Administration has not been an exception in this regard. The desire of the United States to disengage from the Middle East poses conflicts in its war against terror, and Biden’s pledge to pressure Saudi leaders on their human rights policies (it is noteworthy that Sullivan’s recent visit coincided with the third anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi) makes for dissonance regarding the kingdom’s role as a US partner while continuing to act as a human rights violator. There is also the concern that Russia and China are eager to replace US influence in Saudi Arabia; indeed, this is part of Riyadh’s strategy to ward off American pressure, which has not yet produced much change. Jake Sullivan’s discussions in July with the Saudi vice minister for defense, Prince Khalid bin Salman, focused on both security issues and human rights, but there has been no evidence of a change in Saudi behavior since then. On the other hand, and despite initial reviews of US security assistance, the recent approval of a $500 million package to Saudi Arabia shows that arms sales to the kingdom are back on track.

There is also the concern that Russia and China are eager to replace US influence in Saudi Arabia; indeed, this is part of Riyadh’s strategy to ward off American pressure, which has not yet produced much change.

In fact, Biden’s boldness in initiating a review of the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and his announced willingness to put arms sales in the balance was belied from the start by a problematic distinction the administration made between Saudi offensive and defensive operations in Yemen. In war, all weapons and operations could plausibly be defined as either type. Indeed, as Sheline and Riedel argue, the siege around Yemen, which the United States continues to approve and support, is itself arguably offensive in nature in that it prevents—or at least severely hampers—humanitarian assistance to Yemen and therefore may have caused the greatest harm so far to the civilian population. The Saudis still refuse to take the first step of a partial lifting of the siege by allowing Sanaa airport and the seaport of Hodeida to operate.

Leverage on Saudi Arabia, therefore, remains compromised as long as conflicting goals pull the United States in different, often opposing, directions. The same could be said of the United Arab Emirates, whose cooperation is also needed in tamping down the war in Yemen—but this is once again complicated by an uneasy relationship with the Biden Administration. The Emiratis were more comfortable with the Trump Administration’s tough stance toward Iran and were concerned early on about Biden’s expressed wish to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and his revival of President Obama’s emphasis on support for democratization in the Middle East. The UAE’s partnership with Israel, sponsored and supported by Donald Trump, may well be spurring the ambitious Gulf nation on a course in the region that may not align well with Biden’s foreign policy priorities. In Yemen, there is a legitimate concern that the Israel-UAE entente would lead to a more confrontational stance than to peace-building.

The Iran factor

Biden’s desire to enlist Iran’s cooperation not only in returning to the nuclear agreement but also in conflict resolution in the region also faces a tough challenge. Iran, which remains a foe—pending a return to the JCPOA—is another important regional player with impact on the Yemeni conflict. However, it also presents a difficult case in terms of exercising any leverage to induce collaboration on ending the war. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken a harder line on negotiations with the United States since assuming office. Raisi charged in his recent address to the UN General Assembly that contrary to Biden’s assertion, the United States was not abandoning war but fighting it instead with economic sanctions. For their part, the Houthis, after initially welcoming the new American president, now seem less amenable to a negotiated settlement; they charge that Washington is siding with Riyadh and seeking to stop the Houthi advances1 in Marib and pressing for their total surrender.

Despite a genuine desire to return to the JCPOA, the Biden Administration seems torn between carrot-and-stick approaches.

Despite a genuine desire to return to the JCPOA, the Biden Administration seems torn between carrot-and-stick approaches. The interest in dialogue was evident in Biden’s appointment of a special envoy for Iran, and the choice in this regard, Robert Malley, also sent a friendly message to Tehran since he had been a well-known advocate of a diplomacy-first approach to the Islamic Republic. This seemingly positive approach, however, was tempered, if not totally contradicted, by a decision to maintain economic sanctions on Iran in the interim—something that Iran considers a hostile act and an indication of a lack of serious intent to return to an agreement. As momentous as the decision was to withdraw from Afghanistan, for the United States to finally turn the page with Iran would be even more consequential. The Biden Administration will have to expend huge political capital to convince Republicans—and the country—that the president is not caving in to Iranian leaders should he decide to lift sanctions, sign the JCPOA, and establish normal diplomatic relations with Iran. A return to such relations, nevertheless, seems to be a prerequisite to having any influence on Iran’s behavior, both in Yemen and in the region as a whole.

Nor is the question of leverage on the Houthis any easier. From the start of the war in 2015, the United States has eschewed any direct military role in Yemen and the Biden Administration has no intention to change this policy—which takes away the stick. As for the carrot, which would constitute the delisting of the Houthis from terrorist classification, it has not had much effect. Furthermore, to go beyond that would require a more direct approach, thus raising the level of relations between the two sides, which is also problematic for Biden in terms of domestic American politics.

Yemen’s internal dynamics

Regional influences, important as they are to the course of the conflict, only further complicate an already complex internal situation in Yemen. It has become a cliché that President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has exerted little to no leadership, despite heading what is considered internationally as the legitimate government of Yemen. He has not managed his own coalition well, remaining at serious loggerheads with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) whose forces have kept him effectively out of Aden; the Islah Party, a main component in Hadi’s cabinet, is very pro-Saudi but dead-set against the UAE; and General Tareq Saleh, who leads his late uncle’s (Ali Abdullah Saleh) forces and confronts the Houthis in Hodeida, is fully funded and controlled by the UAE. Worst is the disunity and lack of coordination among the pro-Hadi forces defending Marib from the Houthis, who have been mounting a fierce assault on the city since February. In addition, the southerners do not fare any better since the STC is in control of Aden but of little else outside city limits. The STC-Hadi split in part represents the old internecine struggle in the south that climaxed in a bloody war in 1986. Nonetheless, the STC may well be invited to represent the south in future peace talks, even if its hold on the region as a whole remains tenuous at best.

Demonstrations and violent confrontations between security forces and protesters flared on the streets of Taiz, Aden, and the south generally over inflation, poverty, and deteriorating living conditions. Politically, these protests represent a condemnation of the Hadi government, which has not been able to secure any funds from the Gulf or elsewhere to address conditions in the non-Houthi controlled areas of Yemen. For the greater Aden area, public protests also signal a condemnation of the STC, which had wrested control of the local government from Hadi’s forces for failing to provide the basic health, education, and security services the people need.

The Houthis have largely kept a more unified front in the northern areas under their control, though human rights groups charge that this was done through intimidation rather than cooptation.

As for the Houthis, they have largely kept a more unified front in the northern areas under their control, though human rights groups charge that this was done through intimidation rather than cooptation. Such unity works well for the group in negotiations as long as they represent only their area. Should the Houthis expand their control farther into southern and eastern Yemen and try to negotiate on behalf of the country as a whole, that would be a different matter. Tribal support for the Houthis wanes in Marib and Hadramawt and tribal forces form a strong part of the resistance to Houthi advances in those areas. In the south, where suspicions abound about going back to any northern control, fear of Houthi domination cuts across intra-regional divisions and fighting against Houthi gains is likely to be fierce.

New leadership needed

The presence of Saudi military and intelligence officers on the eastern borders in al-Mahra is testimony to their concern about national interests in that region of Yemen. UAE forces and military advisors, in turn, assert Emirati interests in Aden, Socotra, Mayoun Island, and, most recently, at the port of Balhaf on the southern coast of Shabwa—perhaps in preparation for potential Houthi advances should their forces succeed in taking Marib city. Differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two main pillars of the Arab coalition fighting in support of “legitimacy” in Yemen, are partly (but only partly) to blame for Yemeni divisiveness since the two countries support different factions and promote disparate potential leaders for a future Yemeni government. That said, and even if the United States could get these two regional powers to put aside their differences and work for a united, peaceful, and democratic Yemen, the internal schisms, which for long frustrated a skillful maneuverer like the late President Saleh, would certainly prove to be an insurmountable difficulty for any American peace negotiator. This is unless, of course, a new and more charismatic and skillful leader than President Hadi emerges on the scene and succeeds in bringing Yemenis back together.

This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center DC.

A boy holds shrapnel of a missile at the site of a Houthi missile attack in Marib, Yemen October 3, 2021. Picture taken October 3, 2021. REUTERS/Ali Owidha
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