Each successive United States president over the past two decades has escalated America’s military involvement in Yemen in pursuit of ends in which Yemen itself was, at most, a secondary concern. In doing so, the US, and in particular the office of the president, has helped foster the situation Yemen faces today — splintered as a nation and facing one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes of the modern era. In helping to facilitate Yemen’s dissolution, Washington has also undermined the same interests it sought to pursue in the country – counterterrorism and its relationship with Riyadh. There is thus a moral and strategic imperative for the incoming US administration to meaningfully reorder priorities to change course.
President George W. Bush authorized the first drone strike in Marib governorate in 2002 and through the 2000s his administration became the driving force behind the creation of Yemeni special forces units to fight in his so-called ‘War on Terror’. Much of this US-supplied weaponry and training, however, was redirected by the government in Sana’a in an attempt to brutally quash a rebellion at the time in the country’s north by a nascent Houthi movement. Later, these same special forces were deployed in a bloody attempt to try and put down the mass popular protests of Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Following Bush, President Barack Obama dramatically increased the use of drone strikes in Yemen against suspected Al-Qaeda operatives, without any accountability or transparency regarding the increasing number of civilians also killed. In 2015, his administration backed the Saudi- and Emirati-led military coalition intervention in Yemen against the same Houthi movement. Among other things, Obama’s tenure entailed American-trained pilots dropping American-made bombs across much of Yemen while US diplomats at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) helped secure international legal cover for the coalition and blocked attempts to hold it accountable for war crimes. President Donald Trump, once in office, doubled down on these Obama-era policies, scaling up drone strikes and special forces operations in Yemen, signing billions of dollars worth of weapons contracts with the coalition while also shielding Riyadh from accountability for its actions in its southern neighbor.
The outsized impact the US has had in Yemen through three successive administrations has come in the absence of any coherent foreign policy regarding the country itself. Rather, for American presidents (and the Washington establishment generally) Yemen has not been a policymaking consideration beyond its function in pursuing two cardinal US interests: counterterrorism and preserving the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. While both will remain key White House priorities, Joe Biden taking office in January 2021 could lead to a new US approach in which deescalation of the Yemen war, and the establishment of a sustainable peace thereafter, also feature on his agenda. It seems just as plausible, however, that the former vice president will stack his offices with Obama-era staffers who will repackage the priorities and policy approaches of the last Democratic administration in the guise of a ‘fresh start’.
Biden’s campaign pledge to withdraw US support for the Saudi war effort will be insufficient to bring about peace in Yemen unless it is accompanied by a diplomatic surge. Saudi Arabia is lost for options it can stomach and needs diplomatic support to exit the quagmire it created for itself. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders, the Houthi movement’s main international backers, will take a breath once the capricious Trump is out of the White House and evaluate whether they are willing to make compromises in the region for the sake of renegotiating the nuclear deal that Trump scuttled, and attain a degree of sanctions relief for its battered economy. The US is still the best-placed actor to lead an international effort to leverage the conflict’s relevant players back to the negotiating table, even after Trump’s four-year assault on multilateralism.
UNSC resolution 2216 – which forms the legal basis for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen – was passed in April 2015 and comes up for its annual renewal in February 2021. Negotiating an update to this document at the Security Council would be an ideal place for a Biden administration to start. These negotiations should also include expanding the criteria and scope of the Yemen Sanctions Committee’s work.
The need for the new US president to prioritize peace in Yemen should be clear. Absent a sustainable peace deal in Yemen, the most likely outcome is continued dissolution in the south and, in the north, a Houthi-run statelet along the Saudi border with access to the Red Sea – both of which would pose long-term threats not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to Washington’s economic interests and regional security priorities.
This editorial appeared in Time for a New US Policy – The Yemen Review, November 2020.
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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, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.