Can the Biden administration ‘end the war in Yemen’?

Summary: the Biden administration has clearly signalled intent in working to end the Yemen war but intent remains some way from reality as the Houthis step up their Marib offensive.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

After months of relative silence, the Yemen war reappeared in world media when President Biden in his first major Foreign Policy speech, addressed the issue saying that “We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen … ensure our support for the United Nations-led initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks” and appointing Tim Lenderking, as US special envoy to the Yemen conflict. He also announced an end to US military support for Saudi ‘offensive’ actions in Yemen but reasserted the US commitment to protect Saudi Arabia from Houthi or any other aggression within its borders. This commitment is unclear given that, as anyone who is familiar with Israeli strategy knows, the definition of offensive and defensive is flexible: no doubt the Houthis consider Saudi airstrikes on Marib to be offensive, while the Saudis may claim that they are essential to protect its borders.

It is also worth noting that, in the past year, air strikes have been almost exclusively focused on the main battle fronts: without them, given the open terrain, the Houthis would have taken Marib by now, thus probably causing a fatal blow to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG). Therefore, should the Saudis run out of ammunition for airstrikes, the fall of Marib would follow in short order, an outcome which no one other than the Houthis considers acceptable.

Using the Houthis’ official title, Ansar Allah, Secretary of State Blinken also revoked Trump’s designation of the movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, effective 16 February, with the explicit objective of ensuring “that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering… the world’s worst humanitarian crisis… The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarallah’s malign actions, and aggression”. Although this is extremely welcome for anyone involved in commercial, humanitarian and personal transactions with Yemen, it could have been better scheduled, linking it with political progress rather than simply done without any counterpart.

There is no doubt about the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen, yet again pointed out by USG Sir Mark Lowcock who effectively admitted at this month’s UNSC meeting that the country is entering famine. Anticipating next month’s pledging conference which will seek US$4 billion for this year’s UN Humanitarian Response plan (similar to 2019), he reminded the world that last year only 50% of the required US$3.2 billion was received. Thus, many basic services, including food and cash distributions were reduced by half in some areas, and the total number of people reached dropped by 3 million, while needs have increased.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack launched on 10 Feb against Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia

In response to these diplomatic initiatives, the Houthi movement expanded its major new offensive against Marib, and lobbed missiles on Abha airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia four times in a single week. This is the most serious and intensive offensive in a year. Coalition air strikes and ground fighting are killing and wounding hundreds of young men whose only mistake is to use their salaries to help keep their families alive in the absence of alternative sources of income following the country’s economic collapse. Pressure on government forces is such that they have depleted other fronts to strengthen resistance in Marib, while the Houthis advance and are apparently now less than 20 km from the city, giving no indication that they are ready for a ceasefire.

The atmosphere of this month’s UNSC meeting was a combination of realism and despair. As well as the humanitarian situation, lack of progress on deployment of a UN team to address the potential disaster of the Safer FSO were complemented  by a speech by SE Martin Griffiths who repeated points made since 2015, acknowledging his impotence as a mediator stating there is “nothing anybody can do unfortunately to force the warring parties into peace unless they choose to put down the guns and talk to each other. And this is their responsibility. And this we must earnestly hope is the responsibility that they will now seize.” Neither he, nor recent events, give any hint that this is likely to happen soon.

For the past six years, the UN has failed to bring peace any closer and remains constrained by UNSC 2216 which limits its interventions. The UK’s lack of initiative as ‘pen holder’ bears some responsibility for this stalemate. Biden’s recent initiatives are the easy part: calling for an end to the war, appointing a special envoy, increasing cooperation with the UN. They represent good news in that they fit in with Biden’s overall policies of re-engaging with multilateral institutions and take a moral stand on human rights and humanitarian issues. Implementing them and progressing towards peace in Yemen is less easy. A useful first step would be to strengthen the UN by encouraging a new, more realistic UNSC resolution.

In the six years since UNSC 2216 was approved, it remains the only justification for President Hadi’s position while his control over the situation in Yemen has weakened. Meanwhile, the Houthis have expanded and deepened their control; they are on the offensive so the likelihood of them withdrawing to their pre-2014 positions is nil. While Griffiths’ talks in Tehran might persuade the Iranians to try and influence the Houthis, they do not take instructions from their Iranian allies and currently have no reason to compromise. The current offensive on Marib may be designed to maximise their territorial gains prior to agreeing a ceasefire but they may also anticipate reduced Saudi support for government forces or further divisions within the disparate entities opposing them. They might also see an opportunity for further success at a time when international attention is focused on Iran and the impending (if not already existing) famine in Yemen. The important role of the Saudi-led coalition is a major mechanism for the Houthis to mobilise and maintain their control over a very unhappy and frustrated population. This factor should not be neglected. Meanwhile, as usual, Yemenis at large are left to cope with the multiplicity of disasters affecting them, while their so-called leaders continue to profit from the war and ignore their difficulties.

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