On Thursday, August 12, 2021, the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies held a virtual dialogue symposium on “The Current Trends of the US Administration Towards the Yemeni Conflict.” The panelists discussed the Biden Administration’s current direction towards reaching a political settlement to end the conflict. WCYS was honored to hear from:
Dr. Nabil Khoury: a non-resident fellow at the Rafic Hariri Center for the Middle East of the Atlantic Council. Dr. Khoury served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Yemen (2004-2007).
Hannah Porter: an analyst at the international development firm DT Global. Ms. Porter focuses on Yemeni media and local conflict dynamics.
Baraa Shaiban: a political consultant and analyst on Yemeni affairs. He is the Middle East and North Africa Caseworker at the London-based human rights group “Reprieve.”
This seminar was moderated by Marwa Ghamrawi a human rights researcher and Director of Operations and Communications at the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies.
Once President Joe Biden entered the White House on January 20, he adopted a new US policy towards the war that had been going on in Yemen since late 2014. This approach was evident by his administration’s reversal of designating the Houthi group as a terrorist organization, followed by appointing a new special envoy to Yemen, leading up to halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.
Biden’s policy towards Yemen represents a retreat from his predecessor’s, Donald Trump (2017-2021), policies. In turn, this affects the situation on the ground, especially with the Iranian-backed Houthis launching intensive attacks on Marib (north), in an attempt to control the oil and gas-rich city.
However, there have been some changes in the US policy in Yemen. The Biden Administration resumed its efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution to stop the escalating attacks launched by the Houthis on the oil city of Maarib in northeast Yemen. The Department of Defense announced, recently, its intention to increase its support for the internationally recognized Yemeni army to build its capabilities. Additionally, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy to Yemen, “Kathy Westley,” warned that the United States of America threatened to take international measures against the Transitional Council in Yemen. The US Embassy in Yemen established, that those who attempt to undermine Yemen’s security and undermine its unity are exposing themselves to international response.
Dr. Nabil Khoury noted that Biden’s initiative on Yemen has begun to lose momentum. The goal, however, is to stop the war in Maarib where the fighting is most active and has dangerous outcomes on the conflict. According to Khoury, Yemen is going through a bad humanitarian and political stage that poses terrible consequences to Yemen and the region.
Dr. Khoury noted that world politics often lean towards accepting the most prominent power on the ground, citing the Taliban movement in Afghanistan as an example. He also stressed that negotiations and pressure on all parties to go to peace must continue. However, Saudi Arabia may have to accept a reality that does not serve its interests, especially following the recent pressures by the US, the United Nations, and the international community.
Khoury stated that another obstacle facing the peace process in Yemen is the ongoing conflict between the Transitional Council and the Yemeni government, which introduces further complications to the situation due to the ideological division.
Dr. Khoury concluded that the Security Council must be pressured to stop the war in Yemen through the permanent members. He argued that peace in Yemen is in the interest of all in the long run. He also stressed that Washington will continue its efforts, despite all the obstacles, because it is morally responsible for addressing the instability in Yemen and the danger it poses to the Red Sea and the larger region.
Hannah Porter addressed the current administration’s efforts and how they differ from the Trump administration regarding the conflict in Yemen. She considered that the Biden administration seeks to prioritize diplomacy and a retreat from the military approach. However, the administration approach, Porter said, remains a complex and challenging process that is not necessarily effective. The change in strategy started by reducing the military support for Saudi Arabia and the coalition, which she considered a more complicated decision. According to Porter, the US seeks to continue its support in the fight against terrorism in Yemen and has not removed itself militarily from Yemen but simply reduced its support for the coalition when the new Special US Envoy, Linder King, was appointed. Porter considered that the unconditional reversal of the designation of Al-Houthi as a terrorist group was the correct decision for several reasons. Most notably, Al-Houthi seeks to multiply their power and not to submit to the US administration. So far, all efforts to force them to participate in the peace process have failed while the humanitarian situation continues to decline. However, Porter pointed out that the Houthis bear responsibility for what is going on in Yemen because they are refusing to engage meaningfully in the negotiations or accept a ceasefire. In conclusion, the Houthi group is attempting to win regional politics by exploiting the humanitarian crisis and demanding the siege on Yemen be lifted.
Shaiban addressed the complexity of the Yemeni conflict. He emphasized that the current approach to resolving this ongoing conflict is complicated and unfruitful given that several armed groups and militias are fighting internally. Shaiban stated that the current military force is only sufficient to push the Houthis back, but not enough to force them to come to the negotiating table. More pressure is needed to force them to the negotiating table. Shaiban stressed that the US administration should provide effective assistance to the Yemeni government and strengthen its legitimacy. He noted that the US Department of Defense’s support for the Yemeni army will be limited to combating terrorism and stopping smuggling operations.
At the same time, Shaiban expressed his fear that the cycle of violence will continue unless there is real support for the Yemeni government and the civil society and a return to the 2011 scene. Shaiban concluded that a takeover of Maarib by the Houthis gives them access to oil resources, which would advance their negotiating position before any political settlement is reached, further complicating the peace negotiation.