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Houthi attacks underscore failures of Biden Red Sea strategy

Houthi attacks underscore failures of Biden Red Sea strategy

Drone and rocket strikes are officially lethal now, making peace in Yemen even more distant

Middle East

The latest Houthi strike in the Red Sea has for the first time killed civilians — three workers on a Barbados-flagged cargo ship — underscoring the ineffectiveness of the Biden military response after five long months of militant attacks there. It also shows how elusive the goal is for ending the nearly decade-long war in Yemen.

Just two weeks after assuming the presidency in January 2021, Joe Biden took three key steps in hopes of ending the war in Yemen. First, he removed the Houthis from the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation that was announced in the last days of Donald Trump’s tenure. Second, he appointed Tim Lenderking as Special Envoy to Yemen. Finally, he announced that Washington would stop supporting Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, and declared that the war in Yemen had to end. Ending the war in Yemen has remained a major policy objective of his administration.

By the time of these announcements, the Saudi regime, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, had begun extracting itself from the Yemeni quagmire, so the new U.S. position was not received with the hostility from Riyadh it might have expected; indeed, it was formally “‘welcomed” in the hope that Washington’s diplomatic involvement might assist this process. Since then, Lenderking has actively joined UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg in his efforts to bring about an end to the war in Yemen, although the impact of his involvement remains unclear.

Major developments took place in April 2022 with the announcement by Grundberg of a truce between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition. (While that truce officially expired the following October, fighting since then has been small scale, and neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have conducted air strikes against the Houthis.) A few days after Grundberg’s announcement, the president of Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG), Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had clung to that post since 2012, was unceremoniously replaced by a Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) at a meeting in Riyadh hosted by MBS.

Much like the resignation statement announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh in 2017, Hadi’s renunciation was read in circumstances that suggested duress.

The PLC consists of eight men -- Rashad al Alimi, the former Interior Minister who ascended to the presidency, and leaders of the various anti-Houthi military factions as vice presidents, some of them aligned with the Saudis and others with the Emiratis. When handing over his authority, Hadi gave them the mandate to negotiate “with (Ansar Allah) the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire throughout the republic and sit at the negotiating table to reach a final and comprehensive political solution that includes a transitional phase that will move Yemen from a state of war to a state of peace.”

Predictably, given the composition of the council, its members have since spent more energy disagreeing with each other than fighting the Houthis.

Another major development later in 2022 was the start of direct and publicly acknowledged negotiations between the Saudis and the Houthis, resulting in the effective marginalization of both the UN-sponsored process and the PLC, but opening space for Omani mediation. During most of 2023, those talks progressed with two major markers: in April, an official trip to Sana’a, the Houthi-controlled capital, by a senior Saudi delegation, followed in September by a return visit to the Kingdom by senior Houthis.

On both occasions there were widespread rumors that an agreement was on the verge of being reached. Indeed, PLC members were summoned to Riyadh on both occasions to be informed of the situation, rather than consulted. Similarly, the UN Special Envoy was, at best, informed of developments.

The draft agreement involved a six-month cease-fire, to be followed by three months of intra-Yemeni discussions in preparation for a two-year transition phase. The Houthis’ main concession was that the Saudis would sign as “mediators” rather than “participants” thus reducing the possibility of war crimes charges against Riyadh stemming from its highly destructive bombing campaign during earlier years in the conflict.

In return, the Saudis agreed to pay the salaries of all government staff, including the Houthis’ military and security personnel, for at least six months. The expected culmination would have been an event where the Houthis and the IRG, which had a great deal to lose by such an agreement, including generous Saudi subsidization, would sign as participants a document witnessed by the Saudis and likely the Omanis as mediators. It would have formalized Saudi Arabia’s exit from the Yemen conflict while leaving to UN mediation the more difficult task of addressing the intra-Yemeni struggles.

More recent developments in the Red Sea, however, have made it increasingly difficult to continue negotiations, let alone conclude the pending agreement. The Houthi seizure of the Galaxy Leader on November 19 was followed by a series of attacks on Israeli-connected shipping out of what Houthis said was solidarity with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The initial U.S. response was timid, largely because of the Biden administration’s remaining hope that a public event formalizing the “end” of the Yemen war, would enable it to claim a major foreign policy success in an election year.

While this hope explains Washington’s restraint, it doesn’t explain why the administration failed to consult with its major allies in Europe. As a result, when the U.S. established the ineffective Prosperity Guardian operation on December 18, it gained meager international support and a rapid disavowal by major European countries who announced their own operation in mid-February 2024.

In the absence of a formal agreement, UN Special Envoy Grundberg, on December 23, announced a roadmap towards peace which includes “the parties’ commitment to implement a nationwide ceasefire, pay all public sector salaries, resume oil exports, open roads in Taiz and other parts of Yemen, and further ease restrictions on Sana’a airport and the Hudaydah port…. and prepare for a Yemeni-owned political process under UN auspices.”

The IRG’s welcoming of the announcement was, to say the least, muted. Regional states, particularly Saudi Arabia, were more positive, and both the UAE and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council expressed support.

Grundberg has tried to move his road map forward, but the escalations that have taken place in the Red Sea increasingly threaten those efforts. On January 11, the U.S. and UK initiated Operation Poseidon Archer against targets on the Yemeni mainland for the first time, intending to downgrade the Houthis’ capability to launch missiles and drones. Initially presented as a “one-off,” the strikes have become almost daily, and, by the end of February, had hit 230 sites throughout the country.

The number of Houthi attacks, however, has not diminished. While few ships are hit, and those that have been have suffered only minor damage, the Rubymar, a British-owned ship struck on February 18 sank two weeks later, polluting the sea with fertilizer and a massive oil slick. There is no sign of an end to Houthi attacks: despite weeks of strikes, the U.S. officials remain unclear about their impact due to lack of information about Houthi stocks of projectiles.

Meanwhile, the majority of Yemenis support Houthi actions in support of Palestine, even if they are unhappy with Houthi governance. The only explicit support for U.S. and UK strikes within Yemen comes from the IRG, a number of whose leaders have asked for the strikes to be complemented by materiel, training and other military support to fight and somehow defeat the Houthis.

Widely seen as acting in defense of the Palestinians, however, the Houthis’ popularity appears to have risen sharply both domestically and abroad, especially in Arab and predominantly Muslim countries.

Should the U.S. and UK escalate their involvement in the Yemen conflict — a possibility made more likely by Wednesday’s fatal Houthi strike— prospects for a worsening of the situation loom, increasingly reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan decades ago.

While the Saudi involvement in the Yemen war appears to have ended, however informally, Yemenis are now facing the prospect of a new form of international intervention in their crisis, alongside the already worsening economic situation and humanitarian crisis which, between 2015 and until recently was considered the “world’s worst” by the United Nations.

Unfortunately, in the absence of any immediate likelihood of an end to Israel’s catastrophic destruction of Gaza, prospects for peace in Yemen appear increasingly remote.

U.S. Forces, Allies Conduct Joint Strikes in Yemen (Central Command/public domain)

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