Biden ends support for Saudi’s Yemen war in foreign policy shift

The president is preparing for the US to take on a more active role in ending the protracted civil war in Yemen.

Yemen War
Boys demonstrate to mark the World Children's Day outside the United Nations offices in Sanaa, Yemen [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

President Joe Biden announced an end to United States support for Saudi-led military offensive operations in Yemen, indicating that the new administration is planning a more active US role in efforts to end the country’s civil war.

“This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales,” the US president said in a speech at the State Department.

“At the same time,” he said on Thursday, “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV (drone) 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.”

Saudi Arabia welcomed Biden’s remarks, particularly his commitment to the country’s defence and addressing threats against it.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud welcomed cooperating with the Biden administration to solve issues in the region, without commenting on its decision to end support for Saudi Arabia’s war efforts in Yemen.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the United States’ commitment, expressed in President Biden’s speech today, to cooperate with the Kingdom in defending its security and territory,” the foreign minister said on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman reiterated the same sentiment in a series of tweets late on Thursday. “As we have for over seven decades, we look forward to working with our friends in the US on addressing these challenges,” he said.

The ending of US support for the offensive will not affect any US operations against the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, group, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Yemen’s civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including large numbers of civilians, and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis [Hani Mohammed/AP Photo]

Biden also announced the choice of Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen, a move also welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s deputy foreign minister.

Lenderking has extensive experience dealing with Yemen and the Gulf. He has been the deputy assistant secretary of state for Gulf affairs and served in the US embassy in Riyadh.

The Yemen reversal is one of a series of changes Biden laid out on Thursday that he said would be part of a course correction for US foreign policy. It comes after former President Donald Trump – and some Republican and Democratic administrations before his – often aided authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability.

The announcement on Yemen fulfills a campaign pledge. But it also shows Biden putting the spotlight on a major humanitarian crisis that the United States has helped aggravate. The reversing of policy also comes as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia, a global oil giant and US strategic partner.

Sullivan on Thursday reiterated Biden’s pledge, made during the 2020 presidential campaign, that he would curtail US support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, including ending arms agreements.

“It extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis,” Sullivan said. “The types of examples of that include two arms sales of precision-guided munitions that the president has halted that were moving forward at the end of the last administration.”

Sullivan added that the US has spoken with senior officials in Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates as part of “a policy of no surprises with these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”

Many Yemen activists celebrated the Biden administration’s decision as a potential end to the war, but some analysts warned that the foreign policy shift’s implementation on the ground remains to be seen.

“Ending US support won’t automatically mean an end to the war, at all. There is a really fine balance to be struck here, in finding a way to end the war that armed, political factions, local groups and civil society can buy into. Not easy at all,” Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at Crisis Group, said on Twitter.

Yemen’s civil war pits the internationally recognised government against the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including large numbers of civilians, and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 on the side of the government and enjoyed the backing of the Trump administration, with the war increasingly seen as a proxy conflict between the US and Iran.

But the mounting civilian death toll and growing humanitarian calamity – the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of Yemen’s 24 million people are in need – fuelled bipartisan demands for an end to US support for Riyadh.

Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021 published in January that the parties to Yemen’s armed conflict continued to violate the laws of war in 2020, including committing new war crimes.

HRW reported that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Houthi forces, launched mortars, rockets, and missiles into heavily populated areas.

“The coalition also carried out more airstrikes that violated the laws of war, attacking civilians and civilian structures, and using munitions purchased from the United States, France, Canada, and other countries,” HRW said.

In 2020, the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court, and for the creation of an international accountability mechanism.

Joe Biden is naming a special envoy to Yemen as the State Department reviews a Trump administration designation last month of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign ‘terrorist’ organisation [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The UN has been struggling to broker peace talks between the government and the Houthis, an effort that Lenderking likely would be tasked with boosting.

Biden’s decision to name a special envoy comes as the State Department reviews a Trump administration designation last month of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign ‘terrorist’ organisation.

The US last week approved all transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement for the next month as it carries out the review. But the UN is still hearing concerns that companies are planning to cancel or suspend business with Yemen despite the move.

The UN and aid groups have called the designation to be reversed, warning it would push Yemen into a large-scale famine.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies