By Philip Mayne
The outcome of the civil war in Yemen matters to the United States. Geographically, the country sits on the Maghreb Straits, a major trade route. Instability within the region has economic implications for the United States. The outcome of the conflict affects other key interests of the US, such as influence within the region and the containment of Iran.
The United States has been, and continues to be, concerned with an increase in Iranian influence and power within the region. The US and Iran have had a tense relationship for decades. In 2015, tensions were lifted slightly following a nuclear deal between the US and Iran, however President Trump abandoned this deal in 2018 and reinstated sanctions. Relations worsened following the assassination of General Soleimi in 2020 and Iran has vowed that it will seek revenge. The US sees Iran as potentially destabilising the region, which could affect US trade. US policy in Yemen has been guided by its wider interest of containing Iran.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched an intervention into Yemen to restore the Government. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been at the heart of US policy towards Yemen. Saudi Arabia provides an important Middle Eastern ally to the United States, as both seek to contain the influence of Iran within the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in competition for dominance within the region for decades. Aggravated by religious tensions, the Saudi Arabia and Iran relationship can be perceived as a regional Cold War. The Yemen crisis can be perceived as part of the wider Iran-Saudi Proxy war. Saudi Arabia has backed the Yemeni government and Iran has supported the Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah. Therefore, US-Yemen policy has revolved around one of its key Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia.
What has US-Yemen Policy Looked like?
In 2015 the Obama administration, which had a tense and difficult relationship with Saudi Arabia, supported its intervention in Yemen. At the heart of this support has been trade. In 2010, Obama authorised a significant trade deal with the country. By the time he left office $115 billion worth of arms had been sold to Saudi Arabia.
The trade with Saudi Arabia increased under the Trump Administration. A major arms trade deal was secured with the Saudis in 2018, worth up to $380 billion across 10 years. By 2019, guided missiles and bombs made up the majority of the Saudi purchases. US officials have insisted that selling American weapons, such as precision air-to-ground Paveway Missiles, to the Saudis would help to avoid civilian casualties. However, the World Peace Foundation reported that Saudi Arabia has been deliberately targeting civilians with these ‘smart’ weapons. According to Security Assistance Monitor, continued weapons sales from the US has “enabled the Saudi regime to wage a brutal and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen”. Infrastructure, such as fishing and farming, has also been targeted by the Saudis in an effort to starve the population into compliance.
Following reports of war crimes early in the war, the decision to continue to trade with Saudi Arabia, essentially enabling the Saudis to fight in Yemen, has become a controversial issue. The United Nations, in September 2019, urged all states to refrain from “providing arms that could be used in the conflict”. Despite this, Trump continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, Trump vetoed a resolution, which would have forced an end to US support of the War, on the grounds that the US must show commitment to its allies. He continued to make the weapons trade deals and integral part of US foreign policy, to counter Iran, boost US jobs and the US economy. Trump’s foreign policy ultimately elevated economics over other concerns. Trump’s reluctance to cut ties, or halt the arms trade with Saudi Arabia, has been perceived as giving the country the ‘green light’ for more atrocities, and the US has been criticised for looking the other way as one of its staunch allies has committed war crimes; such as the deliberate bombing of civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi-led coalition have bombed hospitals, markets, mosques, detention centres, school buses and fishermen.
The Biden administration has set out to transform US foreign policy. Biden has set out to rebuild US relations and rebuild “moral leadership”. Last week, the new administration has announced changes to its policy on the war in Yemen, and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. On 4 February 2021, Biden made his first speech on US foreign policy. Within the statement he said that he will be stepping up diplomacy efforts, to bring a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels and begin peace talks. Biden reiterated that the US would continue to support Saudi Arabia to defend its territory and sovereignty. But, importantly he said “to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”.
The following day, Biden announced that his administration would revoke the terrorist designation of the Houthis. During his last few weeks in office, Trump designated the Houthis a terrorist organisation, in a move to “further malign activity by the Iranian regime”. However, the move was met with widespread condemnation. The move was opposed because designating the group as a terrorist organisation makes it harder to broker a resolution. The Financial Times expected that the designation would likely push the Houthi movement closer to Tehran, hardening the stances of both sides. Trump’s decision was met with condemnation by the UN, who argued that this would worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis. Since the start of the War, it is expected that more than 230,000 Yemenis have died due to war, mostly due to a lack of food, health services and infrastructure. The UN shared its concerns that the situation would worsen, as links to food and medical supplies could be interrupted. David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, warned that the designation could “be a death sentence to hundreds and thousands if not millions”.
The state department has said that Biden’s announcement does not mean that the US supports the Houthis, and nor does it support the conduct of the Houthis; who have used child soldiers and committed war crimes as well. Instead, it has been decided based on the humanitarian affects that the designation may have had. The UN has welcomed the change in policy calling it a “positive development” towards negotiations.
How important is this transition in policy?
Biden’s policy is a significant change from the last two administrations. He is reversing the policies of the Obama administration and he is trying to distance Washington from Riyadh, overturning the direction of Trump’s foreign policy. No longer will the US position be solely on supporting Saudi Arabia to keep Iran in check, instead it is to focus on human rights abuses on both sides of the war.
However, this policy change has come early in his administration and the effects are not yet clear. The freezing of the flow of US arms to Saudi will put the country under pressure. However, there are no immediate details on what the freeze means. It is not clear what “relevant” arms sales are. William Hartung, the director of the arms and security programme at the Centre for International Policy, said “To be effective, the new policy should stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both proposed and in the pipeline, including maintenance and logistical support”. Therefore, if Biden does want to put pressure on Saudis to come to the negotiating table, the “relevant” arms sales freezes must be significant and wide ranging.
However, the US decision to freeze arms not only puts Saudi Arabia under pressure, but it also ramps up the pressure for other countries, such as Canada, France, Italy, Spain and the UK, selling arms and providing technical support to Saudi Arabia. The UK may be reluctant to do this, as the UK has a trade deal, which includes Typhoons and missiles, worth up to £5.4 billion.
However, if the UK and other allies continue to supply the Saudis, they appear to be out of line with the US. Even more so, due to Biden’s emphasis on the humanitarian issues of the war. Time will tell the impact of Biden’s change in policy.
However, early into his administration Biden has not hesitated to show his commitment to ending the war. In early February, he announced Timothy Lenderking as the US special envoy to Yemen, to open up diplomatic channels. On 7 February, Lenderking was sent to Iran to try to broker a cease-fire between then Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels. On 22 February, Lenderking began another humanitarian trip to several countries in the Gulf with the intention of bringing about a lasting political solution, and humanitarian relief to the people of Yemen.
The Biden Administration has taken a different approach to the Yemen crisis. The President appears to be committed to bringing peace to the country. Although the change in policy is welcome, it is premature to celebrate. It will take a continued commitment to stopping the war and applying pressure to its allies. There is still a long and uncertain road ahead for the people of Yemen, who have already suffered years of war, crisis, and hunger.
Philip Mayne is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Hull. He has a special interest in strategy, counterinsurgency, military ethics, military history, international security and relations. His thesis examines the relationship between military ethics and military effectiveness. Specifically, his work focuses on adherence to the Just War Tradition, and success in counterinsurgencies; through analysing the case studies of the Malayan Emergency, the Kenyan Emergency, the Algerian War and the Vietnam War. Philip has contributed to the Huffington Post and is an active member of the Hull University War Studies Research Group. Find him on Twitter @phil_mayne.