US President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that his administration will cut off support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Yet it is not clear what US policy toward Yemen will look like under the Biden administration.
Washington’s Yemen policy, long driven by counterterrorism and broader regional interests, has substantively remained unchanged through the past three US administrations. At times, drone strikes have intensified or direct military ground operations have eased, but Yemeni internal issues — political, economic and security — consistently have been left to Saudi Arabia. In terms of the Yemen War, Washington has staunchly supported Saudi Arabia, in the UN Security Council and in supplying weapons and logistical support to carry on the fight against the armed Houthi movement.
Midway through the Trump administration, however, US support in Congress for continuing the status quo began to waver considerably. The October 2018 pre-meditated torture and killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident and familiar face in Washington, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shocked lawmakers. Opposition to arms sales grew along with concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s war. US President Donald Trump never faltered in his support for the Saudi leadership, but a field of Democratic Party challengers began questioning the Saudi relationship, US priorities in the Gulf and the impact of US decisions on Yemen. One of them will move into the White House in January, and while Biden has pledged change, he hasn’t made clear whether the United States will simply step back from the fighting or invest diplomatic capital in Yemen. Four experts discuss what policy the Biden administration should adopt in Yemen.
This publication is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.
Biden’s Triple Challenge in Yemen
By Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Associate Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a non-resident Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University
When it comes to Yemen – as with so much else – the incoming Biden administration will face a trio of overlapping challenges. It will be tasked with reversing damaging policies adopted by the Trump administration, re-engaging with multilateral institutions and partners, and reimagining its relationship to the conflict in Yemen. This will require a break from the policies of the Trump administration as well as from at least some of those of former President Barack Obama.
Over the past four years, Trump has shown a tepid and largely rhetorical commitment to multilateral peacebuilding efforts in Yemen, undercutting this work through ongoing military cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition, and his most damaging policies may be yet to come. Since losing the election, the Trump administration’s proposed sale of US$23 billion in military equipment to the UAE stands to tip the balance of power within the coalition itself in a way that could needlessly complicate already febrile escalation in the South. The administration has also begun publicly weighing a move to classify the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization, suggesting that the Trump administration is divesting from diplomacy and seeking a military resolution to a conflict that most Yemeni parties agree requires a negotiated end.
The Trump administration has also downgraded diplomacy and disengaged from core humanitarian projects in Yemen, leaving millions at risk. While the US is not the sole driver of the collapse of donor commitments, the rollback of essential relief programs in the region’s worst humanitarian disaster is abetted by the Trump administration’s attack on multilateral forms of accountability for civilian targeting. In recent months, the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) that reports to the UN Human Rights Council has called on the Security Council to refer parties to the war to the International Criminal Court on the basis of documented targeting of infrastructure and the obstruction of aid delivery; not only has the US not supported this effort at accountability, it has worked to effectively criminalize the ICC itself.
President-elect Biden’s work will not be restricted to repairing or reversing this damage, however; he also has a unique opportunity for a broader rethinking of US policy in and toward Yemen. While it is disappointing that it took the murder of a single Saudi citizen – Jamal Khashoggi – to provoke congressional demands for a more accountable foreign policy in the Gulf, Biden will be making policy with a very different Congress than the one that he dealt with as vice president.
Congressional pressure on the US-Saudi alliance contributed to breaking a major diplomatic impasse in Stockholm in 2018, and it is clear that bi-partisan challenges to military sales to Gulf allies continue to exist even in this divided post-election context. Now it is time to use this congressional awareness of the costs of (and US implication in) the war to press for a renegotiation of the diplomatic framework. Without the risk of a presidential veto, it should be possible for congressional and executive branches to work beyond the binary approach of UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
While the outgoing administration has worked to block Biden’s team in unprecedented ways, the trio of challenges outlined here is one of philosophy as much as planning – it requires rethinking the United States’ approach to Yemen before all else, and that is a challenge that a new team can and should undertake now.
Create Leverage and Use It, On All Parties
By Baraa Shiban, MENA caseworker for the human rights group Reprieve, conducting field investigation on the US drone program, former adviser to the Yemeni embassy in London and a youth representative in the Yemeni National Dialogue
As the conflict in Yemen enters its seventh year, it is time for the US and a new Biden administration to adopt a different approach. Although there is a proxy element to the war, it is essential to approach the conflict through a Yemeni prism.
First, the United States must create leverage to get the parties to the negotiating table. Neither the National Dialogue Conference that followed the Arab Spring uprising nor four rounds of UN-sponsored talks have produced concrete results. The main reason for this is the international community’s failure to create leverage over the Houthis in a way that would force them to the negotiating table. A Biden administration could, for example, make any US re-engagement with the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) contingent on Iran using its influence to push the Houthis to compromise. The US should, in turn, use its leverage to do the same with the Saudis and the Yemeni government.
Second, counterterrorism alliances are hindering state institutions. The Biden administration should prioritize reigning in the United Arab Emirates and immediately make any ongoing partnership with the UAE contingent on it ending its support to militias and perpetrators of human rights abuses in South Yemen. The UAE’s claimed counterterrorism operations in Yemen have directly undermined the Yemeni government’s ability to build strong, local state structures. The Emirates’ support for militias has weakened security throughout the south and led to the secret detentions and assassinations of those who oppose the UAE, eroding efforts to reunite Yemen.
Third, drone strikes are not helping Yemen. A Biden administration should bring them to an immediate end in Yemen and cancel plans announced in November to sell the UAE weapons-ready MQ-9B drones. The intelligence behind drone strikes is often flawed, and their lack of accountability only gives groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State ammunition with which to recruit and sow discord.
Finally, the Biden administration should reiterate its support for President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government while tying this backing to certain benchmarks that ensure the Hadi government is transparent and held accountable for its actions. The US should not hesitate to impose sanctions against corrupt officials profiting from the ongoing conflict. This should also apply to the Yemen government’s partners, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
A Step Toward a Strategy
By Gregory D. Johnsen, author, editor of the Yemen Review and a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center and at the Brookings Institution
President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear his administration will end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. That is a necessary and wise step, but one that must be taken as part of a broader strategy to end the war in Yemen and, slowly, piece the country back together again.
Cutting off US support absent a broader policy will do little but rupture a relationship with Saudi Arabia that is in need of repair, institutionalize the Houthi coup in Sana’a and, ultimately, lead to the break-up of Yemen as a single state. Such a Humpty Dumpty scenario in which Yemen fractures into various zones of control will have enormous and far-reaching consequences for US national security.
Upon taking office, the Biden administration should inform Saudi Arabia of three things. The war must end, US support for Saudi Arabia will end, and the US will do everything in its power to help Saudi Arabia find a workable peace. Saudi Arabia needed US acquiescence to begin this war and it will need US help to end it.
Various UN special envoys have had nearly six years to find a comprehensive agreement in Yemen. They have not been able to do so. Not because they are not skilled diplomats, but rather because the UN lacks the leverage to force the various parties to the table and then insist that they implement what they agree upon. The United States has that leverage, at least with the Saudis.
As part of its diplomatic effort, the United States should broker three-party talks between the internationally recognized Yemeni government, the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia. In these talks, the US should insist upon Yemen’s territorial integrity as well as the unity of the Yemeni state.
The Houthis have to understand that they are negotiating to be part of the state, not the state itself. Saudi Arabia must understand that the Houthis will have a role in Yemen’s future. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi must understand that a repeat of the Kuwait talks in 2016 will not be tolerated. Either he is part of the solution or he is part of the problem.
The US has already got it wrong twice in Yemen. Under the Obama administration, the US outsourced Yemen’s supposedly democratic transition to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. A few years later, when that transition predictably collapsed, the US compounded the error by backing Saudi Arabia in a foolish and unwinnable war, which did little but drive the Houthis closer to Iran.
There is no time to lose. Already, the Houthis are acting like a nation-state, appointing and receiving ambassadors. The Southern Transitional Council is looking to secede, and various pockets of the country have gained significant autonomy over the last few years.
A fractured Yemen will present a number of challenges to the US from the vast amounts of humanitarian aid that will need to flow into the country to the security of shipping lanes and a potential renewed threat of terrorism.
A renewed diplomatic effort, led by the United States, may well be the last chance for a unified Yemen.
Biden’s Options may be Limited by a Houthi FTO Designation
By Thomas Juneau, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center
According to media reports, the Trump Administration plans to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization prior to leaving office in January 2021. Houthi governance in northwest Yemen is increasingly corrupt, authoritarian and violent, and war has brought the group steadily closer to Iran. It is therefore the right policy for the United States, strategically and morally, to oppose the Houthis. Yet designating the Houthis would be counter-productive: it would hamper the already difficult work of humanitarian organizations trying to deliver much needed aid in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, where 80 percent of the population is reliant on aid. It would also complicate the already steep hill the faltering peace process faces. It would, moreover, only marginally hurt the Houthis.
The main consequence of designating the Houthis would be to tie the hands of the incoming Biden administration. Supporters of designating the Houthis argue that it would provide the next administration with additional leverage in an eventual peace process: it would allow Washington to extract more concessions from the Houthis in exchange for delisting them. This has some truth in theory, to the extent that it is not a bad idea to accumulate assets that can be traded away in advance of future negotiations. Because the Houthis hold the upper hand in the balance of military power on the ground in Yemen, it is, again in theory, appropriate to build leverage against them.
In practice, however, it is unlikely that the benefits outweigh the costs. At some point in the future, Washington might assess that delisting the Houthis is necessary to see progress toward peace. Yet delisting the Houthis would be far easier said than done, as the move would inevitably attract significant opposition from Saudi Arabia and inside the United States. Procedurally, it would be straightforward; yet as other examples of sanctions that acquire a life of their own and become very difficult to lift show, it is the politics that would be challenging, both domestically and internationally.
This is entirely consistent with a central aspect of hawkish foreign policies toward Iran: the intent to tie the hands of future governments, to lock them into the existing confrontational dynamic and sabotage eventual efforts at engaging Iran or the non-state armed groups it supports. Such punitive policies are, to some extent, necessary: Iran is a rival to the United States and its allies and partners, and its policies are responsible for much instability in the Middle East; it is thus necessary for the US to work to contain Iran. But when sanctions are used like a hammer in search of nails, as opposed to a more surgical tool, the costs come to exceed the benefits. These unnecessary, excessive sanctions do not make engagement impossible – sanctions can, in theory, be lifted – but they do make it more complex and politically costlier. As a result, the negative – and clearly intentional – side-effects (in this case, hampering the delivery of aid and creating an obstacle to peace) are also perpetuated.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.