In the weeks leading up to President Joe Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces and a group of allies launched a series of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, major media outlets were acutely aware of the risk that Israel’s war on Gaza could grow into a wider regional conflict.
Yet, in the breadth of stories that covered the Biden administration's desire and efforts to avoid such an escalation, mainstream media rarely mentioned the clearest non-military pathway to easing regional tensions: helping to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The Houthi leadership in Yemen has said their attacks will not cease until Israel’s “crimes in Gaza stop and food, medicines and fuel are allowed to reach its besieged population” according to Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti in December. Who can tell if that's true, but evidence suggests that the attacks in the Red Sea and in Iraq and Syria all but stopped during an earlier brokered “pause” in Gaza in November.
But this is never discussed. In the first weeks of January, major media outlets maintained that the Biden administration was grappling with how best to manage the conflict and ensure that it did not extend beyond Gaza. Between October 7 and January 14, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal ran over 60 articles that focused on some aspect of the threat of escalation in the Middle East. At least 14 of them focused on the Biden administration’s decision-making process.
“Attacks Heighten Fears of a Wider War for the Middle East and U.S.,” reported the New York Times.
“Tensions in the Middle East are rising beyond Israel. Here’s where,” said the Washington Post.
“U.S. Steps Up Diplomatic Push to Avert Broader Middle East War,” added the Wall Street Journal.
Even following the Jan. 13 strikes in Yemen, media reports contended that the Biden administration was committed to avoiding escalation. “Mr. Biden and his top aides have been loath to take steps that could draw the United States into a wider war in the region, according to the New York Times.
But of those 14 articles, only five mention the demands of U.S. adversaries in the region, namely that Israel allow food and medicine into Gaza and end its bombing campaign. In most cases, the articles only briefly note that the Houthi attacks were being carried out “in solidarity” with suffering Gazans. But nowhere in the series of stories about the potential crisis was the pursuit of a ceasefire mentioned as an option.
Instead, the articles mostly framed the options as maintaining the status quo or pursuing a military solution.
“Senior officials said they must decide whether to strike Houthi missile and drone sites in Yemen, or wait to see whether the Houthis back off after the sinking of three of their fast boats and the deaths of their fighters,” reported the New York Times on December 31, after a U.S. helicopter sunk three Houthi boats in the Red Sea.
“Mr. Biden and his top aides have sought since the Oct. 7 attacks to contain the conflict between Israel and Hamas to the Gaza Strip,” reads the New York Times’ January 3 story on the Biden team’s efforts. “The Pentagon dispatched two aircraft carriers and doubled the number of American warplanes to the Middle East to deter Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq from widening the war.”
If there were critics of the Biden administration, they always preferred a more aggressive path. “Critics of the administration’s approach have called the retaliatory strikes insufficient,” said the Washington Post on November 8, following U.S. strikes in Syria.
Meanwhile, the reports ignored experts who have been pointing to ceasefire as an option for weeks.
In making an argument for Washington to take the lead in pushing for an end to violence in November 2023, three fellows at the Century Foundation offered that a ceasefire would “reduce tensions regionally, lessening the risk—currently increasing daily—of a broader war that draws in the United States.”
A few hours before the strikes in Yemen on Jan. 11, RAND Corporation researcher Alex Stark made the case that pushing for an end to the war in Gaza was the most effective way for Washington to de-escalate tensions with the Houthis.
“Like it or not, the Houthis have linked their aggression to Israel’s operations in Gaza and have won domestic and regional support for doing so,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Finding a sustainable, long-term approach to both conflicts will be critical to de-escalating tensions across the region and getting the Houthis to call off their attacks on commercial vessels.”
Following the U.S. operations, the New York Times did note that countries like Qatar and Oman “had warned the United States that bombing the Houthis could be a mistake, fearing that it would do little to deter them and would deepen regional tensions. They have argued that focusing on reaching a cease-fire in Gaza would remove the Houthis’ stated impetus for the attacks.”
Experts have said that the inability to link Houthi aggression with the ongoing war is a strategic miscalculation. “That refusal to see the linkage between Gaza and the Red Sea means we also fail to see the overriding security-strategic imperative here: to avoid a further escalation regionally, and to move towards possibilities that are de-escalatory,” wrote the Carnegie Endowment’s H. A. Hellyer on X.
“[I]t's about avoiding a situation that gets out of control quickly and easily, and which could have the potential to drag much of the region into a destructive war. We have a number of clear good pathways in that regard, but we've rejected them.”
To be sure, it is unclear how the Houthis or militias in Iraq and Syria would respond to a pause in hostilities in Gaza. But the short-term humanitarian pauses in Gaza in mid-November led to the only period of relative calm in the region since the outbreak of the war, particularly in terms of attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.
According to a tracker from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as of January 16, there have been 152 anti-U.S. strikes since October 18 in those two countries. None of them took place between November 23, when the short-term ceasefire was announced, and December 3, two days after the truce expired.
There was also a notable decrease in Houthi attacks in the Red Sea during that timeframe, according to a timeline compiled by the maritime risk intelligence firm Ambrey Analytics.
“During the ceasefire that was in place in November their attacks dramatically decreased, providing a degree of empirical evidence that the ceasefire had a strong likelihood of being an effective option to stop the attacks,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. “The media never had to endorse this option. And they could also rightfully be scrutinizing and be skeptical about it. But by not mentioning it at all, they deprived the American public awareness that the option even existed, leaving Americans with the false impression that the only option was to do nothing or to escalate by bombing Yemen.”
Meanwhile, momentum in the push for a ceasefire in official Washington also appears to have hit a snag after Congress’s return from the holiday recess. In the weeks following the start of Israel’s offensive, perhaps influenced by polls that showed strong public support, the number of members who explicitly called for a ceasefire increased steadily, reaching a total of 62 by December 21.
Since then, however, only one new member has joined the calls.
Several lawmakers from both parties did criticize the White House for not consulting Congress before bombing Yemen.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) took it a step further, drawing the direct link between Washington's unwillingness to call for a ceasefire and the potential for escalation in the region. “This is why I called for a ceasefire early. This is why I voted against war in Iraq,” Lee wrote on X. “Violence only begets more violence. We need a ceasefire now to prevent deadly, costly, catastrophic escalation of violence in the region.”
Blaise Malley is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He is a former associate editor at The National Interest and reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, The American Conservative, and elsewhere.
The son of a newly recruited Houthi fighter holds the Palestinian flag as his father carries him during a ceremony at the end of the training of new recruits in Sanaa, Yemen January 11, 2024. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.