In his first foreign policy address as president in February, President Biden announced that he would terminate US support for offensive Saudi military actions against Yemen and freeze “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He also appointed a veteran diplomat, Timothy Lenderking, as the US Special Envoy to Yemen to intensify diplomacy in efforts to end the nation’s civil war. Additionally, the Biden administration revoked the United States’ terrorist designation for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, hoping to avoid further humanitarian complications and escalation of the conflict.
While Biden’s salvo of measures partly meets the minimum expectations of numerous humanitarian organizations and activists and falls in line with Congress’ efforts vetoed by former President Trump, many observers remain cautious about the prospects for peace.
Ever since March 2015, the US has been providing essential logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-UAE coalition which launched the military offensive against Houthi rebels that year, overthrowing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and capturing the capital city of Sanaa.
Yet, the specific red lines around what kind of actions the Biden administration will now tolerate in Yemen, after announcing its withdrawal of support to the Saudi-led campaign, are not exactly clear.
The red lines around what actions the Biden administration will now tolerate in Yemen, after announcing its withdrawal of support to the Saudi-led campaign, are not exactly clear.
Despite terminating the US support for “offensive” operations, Biden has also pledged to defend Saudi Arabia from cross-border attacks, such as the one carried out in February at Abha International Airport, near the kingdom’s border with Yemen.
Saudi and Emirati leaders justified their intervention in Yemen by claiming that it was undertaken to aid a neighboring country in need, after a specific request from its governing authority – which is legal under international law. After the Houthi’s retaliatory attacks on Saudi Arabia, Riyadh often presented its actions against the Houthis as defensive operations. But many analysts observe that it is unclear which parameters the US administration will use to define defensive or offensive actions.
However, in a letter to Biden, a coalition of more than 80 anti-war advocacy groups and experts called on the US President to follow a more comprehensive approach when dealing with Saudi Arabia, saying that “curtailing US military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should not be limited to arbitrary definitions of what equipment and services are ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive,’ but instead should be guided by these countries’ past behavior as required by the US and international law.”
So far, the administration has suspended two precision-guided bomb sales to Saudi Arabia which were approved late in the Trump administration.
The Biden administration has also paused the US$23 billion purchase of F-35 fighter jets, MQ-9B drones, and munitions by the UAE, which according to President Biden, will be closely reviewed. The deal was approved by the Trump administration and seen by many observers as a reward to the UAE for agreeing to normalize relations with Israel.
The Biden administration has also paused the US$23 billion purchase of F-35 fighter jets, MQ-9B drones, and munitions by the UAE.
It has also been reported that the Pentagon halted intelligence sharing in assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive actions.
Yet, the signatories of the aforementioned letter are also calling on President Biden to permanently cancel dozens of Trump-era arms sales—worth a combined US$36.5 billion. This would include sales of spare parts and support services, even though they are not directly related to munitions, but because they are “critical” to conducting offensive operations.
Despite many open questions, Daniel Silverman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, believes the underlying intention and motivation of the Biden administration’s recent move has both moral and strategic logic. Morally, he explained, the administration objects to the serious human rights violations caused by the campaign, with thousands of Yemeni civilians killed and numerous alleged atrocities amid a relatively indiscriminate use of airpower in the country.
“Figures such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who have both long cared about human rights issues and America’s reputation on them, likely have a strong desire to curb these activities and distance America from them,” Silverman told Inside Arabia.
As for the strategic part, Silverman reads Biden’s announcement as an olive branch to Iran, showing the administration hopes to re-engage Tehran diplomatically in a significant way, as key pillar of its broader foreign policy in the region. A withdrawal in Yemen may well be an effort to quickly signal to Iran the new administration’s aim to move on from their predecessor’s aggressive approach toward the country and restore the Obama-era status quo.
However, Asher Orkaby, Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, sees the announcement as ill-timed and ineffective. In the short-term, he noted, the announced withdrawal of US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen will have little effect on the outcome of the war.
In the long-term, “the US will be giving up an influential role in the Arabian Gulf and will be replaced by other countries that have fewer moral standards,” he told Inside Arabia. In Orkaby’s view, the Biden administration has symbolically demonstrated to the entire Saudi coalition that it supports Iranian regional dominance.
Though Biden’s newly adopted approach is largely seen as a U-turn in American foreign policy towards Yemen, many analysts also remain skeptical as to whether the arms sales restrictions would be a sufficient measure to stop the suffering of Yemenis. The conflict is far too complex to be solved with a single step and any further diplomatic attempt, which would ignore Yemen’s complex domestic dynamics and the reality on the ground, is likely to fail. Hence, finding an equilibrium between numerous political and military factions in the country and curbing the disruptive role of foreign actors would be a much greater challenge.
The conflict is far too complex to be solved with a single step and any further diplomatic attempt, which would ignore Yemen’s complex domestic dynamics, is likely to fail.
Part of the US’ solution appears to be the appointment of a Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, who has already traveled to Saudi Arabia with the task of persuading the Saudis to end their war in Yemen. But while the Biden administration can successfully put pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government (which has almost no support among Yemenis), it has no leverage on the Houthis, who control at least 70 percent of the country and are the de facto rulers of Yemen.
Although the US revoking the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation for Houthi rebels was likely done in hopes that the group would reciprocate and engage in negotiations, the Houthis instead responded with an offensive on the oil-rich city of Marib, and have engaged in cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, putting Biden in an uncomfortable position. In Orkaby’s view, the Houthi tribal alliance, an ally of Iran, will be emboldened and may be encouraged to carry out more ambitious military and political gambles, with little incentive to return to the negotiating table.
In a brief statement given to Inside Arabia, Helen Lackner, Visiting Fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, believes that “while President Biden genuinely wants to end the war, he overestimates the US’ influence in doing so.”
Moreover, Orkaby estimates that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies will be alarmed by Biden’s decision to withdraw support from the campaign in Yemen and will ultimately look elsewhere for military and diplomatic support. He believes that this decision will have dangerous ramifications for the entire region, as maintaining US involvement in the Saudi campaign might have allowed the Biden administration to pressure Saudi Arabia into finding alternative solutions to the conflict. “That leverage is now lost, to the detriment of the Yemeni people,” he added.
Although Biden’s major policy shift towards Yemen offers a rare glimpse of hope for a country that faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, there is undoubtedly a long way to go. However, in Silverman’s view, while many details in the US effort to produce stability in Yemen still need to be worked out, “the general thrust to no longer support any actions that would cause substantial civilian harm in Yemen, and/or meaningfully antagonize the Iranians, are fairly clear.”