President Biden’s announcement this week that he is ending U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen’s civil war was his first major foreign policy move in office.
Coupled with a commitment to support a diplomatic resolution more forcefully and ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance, the decision fulfilled a key campaign promise and was welcomed by foreign allies, human rights groups and lawmakers from both parties.
But it also affects the delicate U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and their fight against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi separatists. The Gulf countries are key U.S. security partners in the region but are regularly criticized as getting away with human rights abuses
Here are five things to know about the president’s decision on Yemen:
1. The move received support in Washington and abroad
Biden’s call is seen as a common-sense action that has wide bipartisan support and appeals to the American public.
But it also underscored key priorities he has sought to emphasize as central to his goals to bring the U.S. back to the world stage, focusing on human rights and emphasizing diplomacy to resolve conflicts.
Biden made the announcement on Thursday as part of remarks laying out his administration’s foreign policy approach, saying the U.S. would end support for offensive operations carried out by a Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in northern Yemen and halt any relevant weapons sales that were pushed through at the end of the Trump administration.
This includes ending the delivery of precision guided missiles and of U.S. intelligence sharing and cooperation that critics have said implicated the U.S. in civilian casualties that Riyadh did not take sufficient care to avoid.
Yet the president made clear in his statement that the U.S. supports the right of Saudi Arabia to defend itself in the face of attacks that are launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, and will continue U.S.-military operations that target al Qaida’s operations on the Arabian Peninsula.
“I commend the President’s announcement ending unconstitutional U.S. support for the war in Yemen,” tweeted Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for the war that was vetoed by former President Trump.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave his blessing, tweeting, “I also fully support the decision regarding ending support of offensive military operations by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”
And the United Nations praised Biden’s appointment of a special envoy for Yemen and his commitment to “stepping up” U.S. diplomatic engagement to end the war.
2. Biden picked veteran Mideast diplomat Timothy Lenderking to push diplomacy
Lenderking’s appointment as U.S. special envoy for Yemen signals how highly the administration is prioritizing efforts to support the United Nations-led process to find a diplomatic resolution to the more than six-year civil war.
His appointment was welcomed by Saudi Arabia, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement of support, as well as by Ahmed Awa Bin Mubarak, the foreign minister of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, who said the two had already spoken by phone.
The selection of Lenderking was also viewed as an effort to promote the experienced career professionals of the diplomatic corps who were sidelined during the Trump administration.
He most recently served as deputy assistant secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the Near East Bureau in the Trump administration and is a career foreign service officer, with postings in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Morocco among his experience.
“Lenderking is both an important and predictable signal,” said Dave Harden, managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and a veteran of the State Department, where he focused on Yemen.
“He’s been on the job as deputy assistant secretary for years and he knows this account very well. Now he has the prominence and profile from President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.”
3. Biden is removing the Trump administration’s Houthi terrorist designation
The State Department is moving forward on reversing an eleventh-hour decision by the Trump administration to label the Houthis as a terrorist organization amid outcry from human rights groups and the United Nations that the move was a death sentence for Yemeni civilians.
These groups warned that the Houthi designation is scaring off commercial importers essential to continuing the flow of critical goods that help alleviate the humanitarian crisis, for fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.
The Biden administration issued a special license through the Treasury Department to ensure delivery of these critical imports, but the exception ends on Feb. 26.
Yemen Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, Mohamed Abdi, reacted to the move saying it is a “welcome” decision that will help avoid “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” and will allow the continued delivery of food, fuel and medicine.
“This is a sigh of relief and a victory for the Yemeni people, and a strong message from the US that they are putting the interests of Yemeni’s first,” he said in a statement.
4. Calls grow for U.S. to get tougher on Saudi Arabia
The U.S. and Saudi relationship has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over the murder and dismemberment of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which was believed to be ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman; Riyadh’s suppression and jailing of political dissidents at home; and its role in the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Elisa Catalano Ewers, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Yemen decision makes clear that the Biden administration is following through on its “principled foreign policy instincts” and showing a willingness to have tough, honest conversations.
“The new team is signaling it is going to assess the whole of the relationship, which is deep and complex, and evaluate the issues on their merits, be clear-eyed about them, and ultimately weigh them against what is in the U.S. strategic interest,” she said.
Democratic lawmakers are increasingly calling on the Biden administration to begin addressing other bad actions by Riyadh.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for a “reset” of U.S.-Gulf relations as part of efforts addressing Saudi human rights allegations.
And Democratic Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are calling for the administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its efforts helping its citizens accused of crimes in the U.S. flee the country to avoid justice.
5. People are questioning the role of the UAE
Biden said in his announcement that the U.S. would terminate “relevant arms sales” that contribute to the offensive in Yemen, ending the delivery of precision guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, but did not address directly whether arms sales to the United Arab Emirates are included.
The administration had earlier paused an expected weapons transfer to the UAE initiated by the Trump administration, with the State Department saying the sale is under review.
But the U.S. and UAE are key partners in the counterterrorism offensive in Yemen against al Qaeda, which Biden, in his remarks Thursday, committed to continue supporting.
“This is an important area where the U.S.’s and UAE’s interests overlap,” Catalano Ewers said
Amnesty International called for “all arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia” to be blocked “lest they be used to commit further war crimes in Yemen.”
Justin Russell, principal director for the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, which has sued the government to halt weapons sales to UAE, said his team is “cautiously optimistic” that the Biden administration will follow through on “ending US support for UAE’s actions and relevant arm sales.”