Biden Administration and Yemen: Orientations and Implications for the Conflict Parties and Political Solution Path

EPC | 17 Feb 2021

The Yemeni crisis and the regional tensions that are fuelled by it have topped the list of concerns of the new US administration. On 4 February 2021, President Joe Biden announced the suspension of his country's support for the military campaign led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in Yemen, and appointed a special envoy to Yemen in an effort to strengthen US diplomatic efforts to "end the war" in this country. On the next day, his State Department announced the start of procedures for removing the Houthis from the list of terrorism, which was actually done on 16 February 2021.

This paper sheds light on the most important features of the shift in the strategy and orientations of the new US administration towards the Yemeni crisis, and the implications and repercussions thereof for the actors, the future of the conflict in Yemen and the path of the political solution in which the United Nations (UN) mediation plays a fundamental role.

Features of the US orientation and reactions thereto

Just two weeks after his arrival at the White House, and in his first foreign policy address, US President Joe Biden announced that his country is putting an end to its support for the KSA-led military campaign against the Houthis, noting that ending the war in Yemen was at the top of the foreign policy priorities of his administration. During a visit to the State Department headquarters in Washington on 4 February 2021, Biden said: “… to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”. However. Biden also emphasised his country's keenness to reassure its allies in the Gulf, saying: “[a]t the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.  We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people”. Biden appointed the career diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a Special Envoy for Yemen in an effort to bolster US diplomatic efforts to end the war which, he said, "has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe".

The next day, very early and perhaps quite unexpectedly for the opponents of the Houthi group, the US State Department officially notified Congress of its intention to remove the Houthis from the list of terrorism, in a move that the Department Spokesperson said was made “due to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration”. He added, "[t]his intent to revoke that designation has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including … attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens, among other moves".

These developments come in line with the Democratic mood that almost prevails in Washington, which tends to break with the policy of former Republican President Donald Trump and dispose of his legacy, and as confirmation of the promises contained in Biden's election programme regarding the Yemeni crisis. As announced, the new Democratic administration is seeking to activate and support diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen in the context of its endeavour to restore "balance" to its foreign policy regarding managing the existing regional conflict. This was clear from the fact that Washington intensified, albeit indirectly, its contacts with the actors (including Iran which was recently visited by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths for the first time two days after Biden’s announcement) with the aim of reducing tension in the region, starting with preparing to stop the war in Yemen and crystallising a comprehensive vision for a political solution to the Yemeni crisis.

The actors' reactions to Washington's new decisions in Yemen carried a lot of reservations, skepticism, and a little optimism. Despite the flexibility demonstrated in the affirmation by the Arab Coalition and the legitimate government to work with Washington to support diplomatic efforts to reach a consensual formula for the Yemeni war that takes into account the security concerns of the Gulf states, especially the KSA, the two parties expressed some reservations about Biden’s decision to stop his support for the military campaign in Yemen, including suspending arms deals to the Arab Coalition countries. Considering that it was not expected by them and their local allies that the US State Department would announce its intention to remove the Houthis from the terrorist list so quickly, this came as a disappointment.

On the other hand, the Houthis and Iran played down Biden's declaration of the cessation of US support for the Arab Coalition strikes against the Houthis in Yemen unless the declaration was followed by a complete cessation of what they considered "a war and siege on the Yemeni people". At the same time, both the Houthis and Iran welcomed the decision to remove the group from the list of terrorism, considering it an important step on the road to peace.

Implications and repercussions

1. For the Houthis

The Houthis (and their backer Iran) believe that Washington’s backing down from supporting the military campaign of the Arab Coalition is a failure and a recognition of the impossibility of a military resolution to the war in Yemen. They attribute this to their resilience and ability to impose a de facto situation on the ground. Despite their welcome of the new US approach to support the political efforts, they continue to consider Washington a party and an opponent in the war against them. Thus, it would be difficult for them to accept US mediation to reach a comprehensive solution to the Yemeni crisis.

Besides, their prompt removal from the list of terrorism, which does not seem to have been used by Washington to make them meet conditions of any kind on them, would not drive them to stop their attacks on the KSA or reduce their military escalation inside Yemen. Indeed, it may encourage them to accelerate the pace of their threats with the aim of improving their negotiating and field positions in anticipation of any outcomes that may emerge from the US administration’s moves to advance peace efforts. This is evidenced by their recent escalation of ballistic missile and drone attacks against the KSA and their resumption of the attack on the city of Marib during the past few days that followed the recent US decisions and statements. This is believed by many to have given the Houthis a moral impulse to proceed with the approach of evasion and blackmail, especially after what was included in the statements of the official spokesman for the group Mohammed Abdul Salam in terms of the explicit accusations of the UN Envoy of being "the envoy of his country in a UN outfit". Griffiths had expressed his deep concern "about the Ansar Allah (Houthi) resumption of hostilities in the Marib Governorate, especially at a time when the diplomatic momentum is renewed to end the war in Yemen and resume the political process".

2. For the legitimate government

The legitimate Yemeni government was pleased with the decision by President Trump's administration to include the Houthis in the list of terrorism, considering it an important step to besiege the Houthis and weaken them politically and economically. It also considered the decision a political victory that strengthens its negotiating position, stimulates its diplomatic presence, and enhances its legitimacy at home and abroad. However, the flexibility in the US position towards the Houthis that followed the decision, including the removal of their designation as terrorists, constitutes a moral and political shock for President Hadi's government, at a time when it would have to respond to the policy of the new Democratic administration, which, at best, would push towards imposing any formula for a solution on the basis of the gains on the ground, if the Houthi intransigence does not continue. In other words, President Hadi's government would have no choice but to accept an unfair settlement in the light of its military retreat on the ground and its critical economic conditions, as well as its continued political rift and the tensions resulting from the failure to complete the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.

In the event of the failure of the US efforts to de-escalate and end the war in Yemen, the legitimate government would have to face the possibility of the diminution of its influence and the loss of some areas, especially in Marib Governorate, given the expectations that the Houthis would escalate their military operations targeting government bases and areas of government presence in the east and centre of the country.

3. For the Saudi-led Arab Coalition

Despite the announcement by the US National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan that the Biden administration consulted with senior officials in the Saudi-led coalition, and his assertion that the new administration would be "pursuing a policy of no surprises when it comes to these types of actions", the speed of the shift in US foreign policy, especially with the emergence of convulsive statements of an extortionate nature linking the issues of the Yemen war, human rights and the Khashoggi case to perpetuate the momentum of targeting Riyadh, would reinforce the belief prevailing in the region that the Biden administration is heading towards repeating the same policies of the administration of former President Barack Obama, which gives the KSA the incentive to intensify its actions for re-adaptation, building confidence, and finding a compromise formula with the new administration regarding the files at issue, including how to curb Iran's malign interventions and threats through its arms in the region, including the Houthi group in Yemen, and ensuring that regional security issues are part of any future agreement with Tehran regarding its nuclear and missile programmes.

While the Pentagon spokesman John Kirby asserted that “as a result of the President's order …, [the Department of Defense] had been providing some limited non-combat assistance for Coalition operations, and that would include intelligence and – and some advice and best practices, and that all has been terminated”, it is not clear how the US administration would balance its endeavour to end its support for "offensive operations" in Yemen with continued support to defend the KSA, especially in the light of the continued attacks by the Houthis on the KSA. While experts expect that the Biden administration would likely continue to assist the KSA in its defence systems along the Yemeni border against the Houthi attacks with missiles and drones, others indicated that depriving Riyadh of intelligence, especially the monitoring provided by US satellites of the Houthi movements and their transfer of missiles and drones, may push it to rely on other sources, or resort to operating monitoring and tracking aircraft to carry out surveillance tasks with the help of other partners.

4. For the path of peace

The decisions of the new US administration, including the appointment of Lenderking as a Special Envoy to Yemen, would give some momentum to the diplomatic efforts and encourage the primacy of the political track. Furthermore, the US cut back on arms deals and the suspension of its support for the Coalition's military campaign in Yemen make it, in the minds of the administration’s policy planners, more capable of exerting pressure (especially on the Houthis), and would strengthen its chances to play a leadership role and sponsor the peace process between the warring parties. However, Washington's strategy to stop the war, as well as bring about peace, would face many obstacles. There are those who believe that without involving the Iranians in any understandings regarding Yemen, it would be difficult to provide guarantees that address KSA concerns related to the Houthi threats to its national security and interests, and drive it to stop its military campaign against them. Besides, the Houthis would not stop their attacks on the KSA until the demand for “ending the air strikes and blockade” is met, which would mean that the US would continue to cooperate with the KSA to defend it against the Houthi threats, as announced. In addition, it would be extremely difficult to reach a convincing solution for the majority of the armed factions and local political forces, especially that the roots of the conflict are internal rather than external or regional.

Conclusion

  • The declared interest by the administration of US President Joe Biden to stop the war in Yemen seems to come as part of its efforts to play a more balanced role in managing the conflict in the region, which continues to constitute the main guide of US foreign policy towards Yemen. In other words, the administration’s recent decisions on Yemen come as preludes to activating its new strategy to reduce regional tension and negotiate with Tehran. This constitutes an early shift in its foreign policy that would reinforce the belief of its Gulf allies that it is heading towards repeating the same policies of the administration of former President Barack Obama. However, that shift may stimulate the countries of the region to intensify their moves to re-adapt, build confidence, and find a consensual formula with the new administration regarding the issues in question, including how to curb Iranian intervention and threats through its regional arms, including the Houthi group in Yemen, and ensure that the Gulf states are part of any future agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear programme.
  • The flexible US position towards the Houthis, including the termination of their designation as terrorists, constituted a moral and political shock for the legitimate Yemeni government at a time when it would have to respond to the policy of the new Democratic administration which, at best, would push for imposing any formula for a solution based on gains on the ground. This means that President Hadi's government would have to accept a settlement that is much worse than the Stokholm Agreement, in the light of its military retreat on the ground and its critical economic conditions, as well as the continuation of its internal rifts. However, in the event of the failure of the US efforts to de-escalate and end the war in Yemen, and the continuation of the Houthi intransigence, the internationally recognised Yemeni government would have to face the possibilities of the decline in its influence and the loss of some areas, and reconsider its management of the wars and peace battles.
  • The tendency of the new US administration to support diplomatic efforts in Yemen is expected to give more momentum to the political process and strengthen the role of its diplomacy as an acceptable and reliable mediator, especially with the Houthis as the most intransigent and obstructive party to peace efforts. However, it may also push them to escalate their military operations in order to improve their field position and strengthen their negotiating position. In addition, it would still be extremely difficult to reach a convincing solution for the majority of armed factions and local political forces, especially that the roots of the conflict are internal rather than external or regional.

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