One country in the Middle East has already figured prominently in President Biden’s repudiation of his predecessor’s legacy. This past week, the new administration announced what amounts to a major — if symbolic — course correction on U.S. policy toward Yemen. On Thursday, Biden declared the end of U.S. support for offensive operations in the Saudi-led war effort there, including halting a number of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The next day, the State Department formally notified Congress that it would remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, reversing a decision made by the Trump administration just days before Biden’s inauguration.
Despite more than a half decade of grueling ground battles and air and artillery bombardments, the Houthis still control the bulk of territory where Yemen’s population lives. The Saudi-led campaign is linked to the deaths of thousands of civilians and the broader immiseration of the country, which is stalked by hunger and disease and ceaseless humanitarian calamity. Former president Donald Trump dismissed calls in Washington to cut off support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Arab monarchies driving the war and to which Trump had yoked his regional agenda. Biden’s moves reflect his administration’s desire to unlock the United States from that embrace.
But Biden officials also stressed that they remained committed to protecting Saudi territory, which has been periodically struck by Houthi rocket fire. And they condemned what one State Department official described in a statement to reporters as the Houthis’ “contemptible conduct,” including their own catalogue of rights abuses and attacks on civilians.
“Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the official said.
Humanitarian agencies hope the shift in emphasis will be a boon to ordinary Yemenis. “For nearly six years, the United States has fueled conflict in Yemen that has triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and left millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation,” said Oxfam America’s president Abby Maxman. “The U.S. policy towards Yemen has wrongly prioritized strengthening alliances with Gulf powers over the welfare and rights of Yemen’s most vulnerable communities.”
Those communities have suffered through their nation’s economic and political collapse and subsequent shortages of food, medicines and basic goods. The majority of the country’s population now depends on international agencies for food assistance. More than a quarter million Yemenis have died since 2014, when the Houthi rebellion toppled the country’s fragile government and prompted the Saudi-led intervention; the majority perished from indirect causes such as malnutrition and disease.
Some analysts fear that Biden is squandering rare leverage over the Houthis by removing their terrorist designation. Others see the initial listing as an act of “sabotage” carried out by the Trump administration and a move that would undermine humanitarian relief operations in areas under Houthi control.
“The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to change the US’ role in Yemen, from arms broker under the previous administration, to peace maker,” said Mohamed Abdi, Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, in an email, adding that Biden “now has a chance to mobilize the world to push for an immediate nationwide ceasefire” and to “pressure the conflict parties back to the negotiating table.”
While halting support to the Saudis sends a political message, it may mean less in practice. “At its height, [U.S. support] had included providing intelligence logistical help as well as arms sales in the billions of dollars to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as airborne refueling that made possible strikes deeper in Yemeni territory,” wrote Olivier Knox in the Daily 202. “The refueling stopped in late 2018.”
For Biden, now comes the “hard part” of achieving meaningful peace in Yemen, my colleagues Sudarsan Raghavan and Missy Ryan noted. In Washington, the conflict was seen by both the Trump and Obama administrations through the prism of the broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry, with Riyadh propping up a feeble Yemeni government and Iran supporting the Houthis.
That was always too simplistic a frame: The Houthis are far more independent of Iran than some of Tehran’s proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, have found themselves both encouraging and struggling to rein in a thicket of rival factions who are at each other’s throats. Turf wars and local political enmities have ripped apart the Yemeni state, while no single major regional actor has the capacity to end the fighting and begin a process of reconciliation.
There are signs of new openings. On Sunday, Martin Griffiths, the United Nations envoy to Yemen, arrived in Iran for two-days of meetings as part of his push to secure a nationwide ceasefire. But the facts on the ground may be neither in his nor Biden’s favor.
“The most difficult aspect is likely to be convincing the Houthis to accept a political settlement,” noted Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The Houthis feel they have the upper hand in the war and have few reasons to stop fighting now.”
“A key question is whether Yemen’s warring parties will accept the sharp turn in U.S. policy and view Washington as a neutral and trustworthy diplomatic broker,” Raghavan and Ryan wrote. “ U.S. bombs sold to Saudi Arabia and its allies have killed or injured thousands of Yemenis, according to human rights groups and eyewitnesses. In Houthi-controlled areas, the United States is viewed as a main instigator of the war. In Sanaa, Hodeida and other cities, walls are covered in graffiti depicting U.S. bombs and fighter jets killing Yemenis, among other unflattering images.”