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Yemen conflict: Will Biden's approach finally end the war?

Analysts say ending offensive support for Saudi-led coalition is important step, but questions linger over specifics of new US policy
The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 100,000 people and brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine.
The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 100,000 people and brought the impoverished country to the brink of famine (AFP/File photo)

Following last week's announcement by US President Joe Biden to end offensive American support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a number of questions have arisen as to what an end to such assistance will look like and how it will ultimately affect the war.

"We're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales," Biden said on 4 February.

The US president also expressed support for UN efforts to secure a ceasefire in Yemen and promised to increase its US humanitarian aid and diplomatic action to end the five-year conflict.

Still, despite the announcement, the specifics of the new US position remain unclear.

What are "offensive operations" and the weapons relevant to them? And with the US administration reasserting America's commitment to the kingdom's security, how far would that support go in relation to the conflict in Yemen?

"We really just need more clarity, and what's needed is answers from the DoD [Department of Defense] and the State Department," said Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative manager on Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

'Relevant' arms sales

Biden's announcement came after years of pressure by activists and progressive legislators who have been rallying against the war. 

As a presidential candidate, Biden had committed to ending US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition amid growing anger against the kingdom in Washington.

Many of the war's critics were pleased with Biden's announcement to end weapons sales "relevant" to Saudi Arabia's offensive operations in Yemen.

Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat who served in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, said bombs that could be used in Yemen appear to be part of the "relevant" arms sales that Biden intends on halting.

In January, the US paused the sale of munitions to the kingdom approved during the last weeks of the administration of Donald Trump.

'The Biden administration’s use of the word 'offensive' military operations appears intentionally vague'

- Annelle Sheline, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

The withdrawal of US logistics support deals a blow to the kingdom's war effort, which is already struggling to make advances against the Houthis, Khoury said.

"If the Saudis make a decision to continue regardless of what the US action is, then they would have to get supplies from somewhere else. It is possible but complicated because to supply American jets, you need American ammunition and American equipment," he told MEE. 

Seth Binder, advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), echoed Khoury's remarks, saying that running low on munitions may derail the kingdom's war efforts.

"They certainly have a stockpile of arms that they could carry on for a little bit. But essentially, if they know they're not getting resupplied by the US, that will affect how they carry out operations," Binder told MEE.

Moreover, some parts, while seemingly minuscule, are vital to the functioning of the weaponry.

"If [the Saudi and UAE-led coalition] didn't have the steady flow of these spare parts, and this maintenance and technical support, they couldn't keep this war going," Tayyab said.

Still, the language used in the announcement raises questions about what kind of weapons sales will be allowed to proceed under the new guidelines, considering that some weapons could be considered as both "offensive" and "defensive" in nature.

"The Biden administration’s use of the word 'offensive' military operations appears intentionally vague, in order to give the US room to manoeuvre in the future," Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told MEE.

"Many weapons systems are not easily qualified as definitely offensive or defensive, so the US could sell what it considers a defensive weapon that the Saudis use for offensive purposes."

US-Saudi ties

Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, namely the United Arab Emirates, have been conducting a bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015 against the country's Houthi rebels to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The conflict has killed nearly 250,000 people, caused outbreaks of preventable diseases and brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine, resulting in what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Riyadh views the Houthis as Iran proxies, but the rebels deny receiving material support from Tehran.

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The Saudi-led offensive started with the support of former Democratic President Barack Obama, but opposition to the war grew as Donald Trump took office and doubled down on Washington's support for Riyadh as the humanitarian situation in Yemen kept worsening. 

Biden's Yemen announcement comes at a time when the administration is conducting a strategic review of US-Saudi ties. 

Khoury said that while the kingdom does have UK arms and equipment, American support remains vital for carrying out operations in Yemen. He also dismissed the notion that Riyadh could turn to China or Russia for help.

"That would be a transition in everything - in equipment and tactics and training. It's not something you can do overnight," he said.

Khoury added that it would not make strategic sense for Riyadh to continue the "already difficult" war without American support, especially because the White House is scrutinising the kingdom's human rights record.

"If you're going to oppose the Biden administration on ending the war in Yemen and on the internal human rights front and on reconciliation with Iran, well, then you're probably chucking the whole relationship."

Saudi security

Biden's announcement of ending US support for Saudi Arabia's war efforts in Yemen came with assurances that Washington would remain committed to the kingdom's security.

"We're going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people," the US president pledged last week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also "discussed regional security, counterterrorism, and cooperation to deter and defend against attacks on the Kingdom" in a phone call with his Saudi counterpart last week, according to a statement by the State Department.

'Part of the pretence of us getting into the war in the first place was to help defend Saudi'

- Hassan El-Tayyab, Friends Committee on National Legislation

On Wednesday, Blinken called the Saudi foreign minister again, where they "discussed joint efforts to bolster Saudi defences against attacks on the Kingdom" following a Houthi strike on an airport in Abha, near the Yemeni border.

Tayyab noted that helping the Saudis in a defensive posture does not show the Biden administration is fully committed to ending the Yemen war, considering that this has been used by Washington previously to justify its military assistance.

"Part of the pretence of us getting into the war in the first place was to help defend Saudi Arabia," he said.

For its part, the administration announced that it would end limited non-combat assistance for the coalition's operations, including intelligence sharing.

However, Centcom commander General Kenneth McKenzie - the top US general in the Middle East - said on Monday during a virtual panel that the US will continue to give intelligence to Riyadh when it comes to preventing attacks on the kingdom coming from Yemen.

"Over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks," he said during the panel, hosted by the Middle East Institute.

Khoury said Washington's assurances to Saudi Arabia would help quell the fear that ending the war in Yemen may lead to Iranian attacks on the kingdom, noting that the US already has a large military footprint in the region.

"The whole Saudi involvement in Yemen is partly [driven by] paranoia because they think Iran is there and [they'll] take over Yemen, which there's no evidence of that," he said. 

Houthis

As the United States ended its support for the Saudi-led coalition and moved to reverse the previous administration's designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group, it warned the Yemeni rebels against continuing attacks on Saudi Arabia.

"We call on the Houthis to immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement last week. 

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"We urge the Houthis to refrain from destabilizing actions and demonstrate their commitment to constructively engage in UN special envoy Griffiths’ efforts to achieve peace. The time is now to find an end to this conflict."

The call had come just as the Houthis were renewing a push to seize the oil-rich province of Marib, the Saudi-backed government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen.

Sheline argued that reversing the decision to blacklist the Yemeni rebels will help ease humanitarian suffering without bolstering the Houthis' military campaigns.

"Listing the group as a foreign terror organisation was likely to in fact increase their power: they are already isolated and so will not be harmed as a result of international sanctions, and preventing any other actors from engaging with the areas under their control would increase the power," she said.

Tayyab said that while the delisting of the Houthis was a welcome decision, the warnings should not be coming from Washington because it has not been a balanced arbiter in the conflict.

"The problem is when, when the US has been involved in the Saudi/UAE-led coalition's war and blockade, I worry that the US has lost a lot of credibility," he told MEE.

"And in my opinion, it would probably be better if messages like this come from the UN."

Political efforts to end the war

Last week, Biden prefaced his announcement of ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition with a clear statement, saying "This war has to end."

But while the coalition's bombing campaign has been a major part of the conflict, Yemeni factions have been fighting each other on the ground. The Hadi government, Houthi rebels and southern separatists all have competing agendas and have the capacity to continue fighting.

Along with ending US support for the Saudi war, the US president appointed Timothy Lenderking, a career diplomat with years of experience in the Middle East, as special envoy to Yemen.

Binder, of Pomed, said ending support for the US Saudi-led coalition bolsters the diplomatic process by establishing Washington as an "independent arbiter".

'The US is really trying to take on that [arbiter] role to help push towards a ceasefire and push towards peace'

- Seth Binder, Pomed

He acknowledged that the conflict is multi-faceted and tensions between various Yemeni parties will remain regardless of what the Americans, Saudis or Emiratis are doing, but he said the US administration's efforts - including de-listing the Houthis and naming a special envoy - show that Washington wants to help with negotiations.

"The US is really trying to take on that role to help push towards a ceasefire and push towards peace," he said.

Khoury also highlighted that the American diplomatic push is not only relying only on words, as the previous administration had repeatedly called for ending the conflict without taking action.

"It is not just the word of the president. It's the fact that the president has taken on these actions right from the start," he said.

The former diplomat, however, acknowledged that ending the conflict will not be an easy task.

But with the UN's Griffiths visiting Iran last week and the US voicing full support for a ceasefire, the international pressures perpetuating the conflict may be easing.

"It is a complicated picture, but if you wanted to simplify it, I'd say: three major blocs struggling for power have to reconcile their differences and agree on a formula ahead. That's the most difficult part," Khoury said. 

"But before you get to that part, you have to resolve the international and regional issue."