President Joe Biden announced Thursday the United States was ending support for a grinding five-year Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen that has deepened suffering in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country, calling the move part of restoring a U.S. emphasis on diplomacy, democracy and human rights.
“The war has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as president. ”This war has to end.”
The Yemen reversal is one of a series of changes Biden laid out Thursday that he said would be part of a course correction for U.S. foreign policy. That’s after President Donald Trump — and some Republican and Democratic administrations before his — often aided authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability.
The announcement on Yemen fulfills a campaign pledge. But it also shows Biden putting the spotlight on a major humanitarian crisis that the United States has helped aggravate. The reversing of policy also comes as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia, a global oil giant and U.S. strategic partner.
The ending of U.S. support for the offensive will not affect any U.S. operations against the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, group, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Biden also announced an end to “relevant” U.S. arms sales but gave no immediate details on what that would mean. The administration already has said it was pausing some of the billions of dollars in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main partner in its Yemeni offensive.
While withdrawing support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, the Biden administration said it intends to help the kingdom boost its defenses against any further attacks from Yemen’s Houthis or outside adversaries. The assurance is seen as part of an effort to persuade Saudi Arabia and other combatants to end the conflict overall.
Saudi Arabia’s top officials made no immediate public response. They have offered a series of conciliatory gestures and remarks since Biden’s election, seeking to soothe the 75-year-old relationship with the United States.
Yemen, the biblical kingdom of Sheba, has one of the world’s oldest constantly occupied cities — the more than 2,000-year-old Sanaa — along with mud brick skyscrapers and hauntingly beautiful landscapes of steep, arid mountains. But decades of Yemeni misgovernment have worsened factional divisions and halted development, and years of conflict have now drawn in intervention by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, which officials say has lent increasing support to the Houthis.
The Obama administration in 2015 gave its approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting the Houthi rebels, who had seized Sanaa and other territory and were sporadically launching missiles into Saudi Arabia.
U.S. targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia’s command-and-control was supposed to minimize civilian casualties in airstrikes. But Saudi-led strikes since then have killed numerous Yemeni civilians, including schoolboys on a bus and fishermen in their boats. Survivors display fragments showing the bombs to be American-made.
The Saudi-led campaign, joined primarily by the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf country, has only “perpetuated a civil war in Yemen” and “led to a humanitarian crisis,” Sullivan said. U.S. officials have already notified senior officials for those two countries to explain the rationale for the withdrawal of support, he said.