President Biden has promised to end US support for Yemen’s devastating civil war as part of his foreign policy vision to restore America’s leadership on the global stage, but ending the six-year conflict will be no simple feat; securing peace will demand multifaceted solutions and hardline diplomacy.
Houthi insurgents, a Shiite rebel group, have been at war with Yemen’s government since 2014. Yemen has been used as a confrontation zone for regional powers divided by Sunni-Shia religious ideologies. Iran has backed the Houthis in order to combat a Saudi-led Coalition of Gulf States fighting for government control of Yemen.
As the proxy conflict continues, Yemen’s humanitarian situation worsens. Both sides of the armed conflict have committed gross human rights violations and have caused large-scale civilian casualties. 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2015, and another four million remain displaced.
Altering US-Saudi Relations
Biden should alter the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Throughout his tenure as president, Donald Trump centered his Middle East policy around the Kingdom and maintained close ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Trump administration’s support of arms sales to the Saudis provoked widespread opposition from congressional leaders who have criticized the Saudi government for exacerbating the conflict in Yemen. US-made bombs have been used in Saudi military operations resulting in mass civilian casualties.
In 2017 Saudi Arabia and the United States signed a $110 billion arms deal with plans to grow into $350 billion over the next decade. Trump spent his last weeks in the White House hastily pushing through a $290 million weapons deal with the Kingdom, disregarding Saudi Arabia’s track record of human rights abuses. Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill calling for the US to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Although the veto was eventually overridden, the Trump administration’s refusal to challenge Saudi policies has placed culpability on America in the Yemeni war.
The Biden administration has temporarily frozen US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and is reviewing the previous administration’s weapons transactions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the new administration would play a more assertive role in holding the Kingdom accountable and end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that has contributed to the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.”
Revoking Houthi Terrorist Designation
Days before leaving office, the Trump administration designated the Houthi rebel group as a foreign terrorist organization. The last-minute decision prompted outrage from humanitarian groups and lawmakers who fear the terrorist designation will be the tipping point for famine in Yemen. The Houthi rebel group controls over 70% of the country and owns a large number of ports which help deliver food and life-saving humanitarian aid. Imposing sanctions on the Houthis sabotages relief efforts and ends up hurting Yemeni civilians.
Aid organizations are urging Biden to reverse the dangerous sanctions immediately, and Antony Blinken expressed the administration’s concern over the designation at his confirmation hearing. The State Department has initiated a review and will most likely end the Houthi terrorist designation, but with famine looming and 16 million people food insecure, a degree of damage may not be reversible.
Where to Go from Here?
Continued fighting has hindered progress in providing life-saving humanitarian assistance and securing peace. A country-wide ceasefire must be secured in order to address Yemen’s impending famine and provide much-needed aid. From there, the root causes of Yemen’s conflict – both domestic and regional – must be addressed. Biden will need to put heightened diplomatic pressure on proxy powers to stop their interference in Yemen while closely managing a negotiated peace agreement between the Houthis and Yemeni government.
Active involvement in Yemen will be crucial to America’s fight against al-Qaeda. The terrorist group has thrived amidst the chaos of ongoing conflict and has utilized power vacuums to gain control of territory and challenge authority. Al-Qaeda’s growing base poses a security threat to an already volatile country. Biden must prioritize counterinsurgency efforts while ensuring military operations are targeted and result in minimum civilian casualties.
Helping end the war in Yemen would be a momentous foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration. Securing peace would prevent the Houthis from gaining complete control of Yemen and weaken Iran’s leverage in the region, while simultaneously bolstering security against terrorist groups. Biden must increase pressure on allies and adversaries alike to cease interference, and negotiate a political settlement which respects Houthi regional autonomy while guaranteeing legitimacy of the federal government.