Is Biden’s curb on Saudi aid enough to bring peace to Yemen?

Is Biden’s curb on Saudi aid enough to bring peace to Yemen?

President Joe Biden’s decision to cut off U.S. support to the Saudi coalition is “welcome news” but does not mean the path to peace in Yemen will be easy. 

Hani Mohammed/AP/File

Houthi rebels raise their arms and chant slogans after taking over the compound of Yemen’s First Armored Division in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 22, 2014. The ongoing civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis seized Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

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February 11, 2021

Cairo

Buthaina al-Raimi was 5 years old when a Saudi airstrike destroyed her home in the Yemeni capital and killed her parents and all five of her siblings in August 2017.

Ever since, she still breaks into tears for seemingly no reason. When planes fly overhead, she shouts to her uncle, “They’re going to hit us!”

For her uncle, Khalid Mohammed Saleh, the United States decision last month to stop backing the Saudi coalition and push for an end to the war can do nothing to end her suffering.

“It’s a wise decision, but it’s too late,” he said. It’s also too early, he said – too early to say whether President Joe Biden’s move will bring peace to Yemen.

Mr. Biden’s halt to support for the Saudi-led coalition was a dramatic break with the air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which had brought international condemnation for causing thousands of civilian deaths. With the move, Mr. Biden launched a new push to bring an end to a six-year-old war that has caused the Arab world’s poorest nation to collapse into a humanitarian catastrophe.


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But reaching peace will be a difficult path. The warring parties have not held substantive negotiations since 2019. A deal brokered by the United Nations in 2018 after talks in Sweden has largely gone nowhere; only one of its components – prisoner exchanges – has made any progress in slow steps worked out in multiple rounds of talks.

Fighting on the ground and coalition airstrikes continue. The Houthis’ grip on the north of the country has only grown stronger, and they have captured new territory from pro-government forces over the past year.

Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, said Mr. Biden’s policy shift was “really welcome news.” But, he said, that “won’t automatically mean an end to the war, at all.”

Yemen on Thursday marks 10 years since the fall of longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of an Arab Spring uprising – a moment Yemenis hoped would lead to effective governance and greater freedom. Instead, a brutal war followed when the Iranian-backed Houthis in late 2014 seized the capital Sanaa along with much of the country’s north, ousting the government of Mr. Saleh’s successor, President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition that has waged a ferocious air campaign, while supporting allied forces controlling the south in the name of restoring Mr. Hadi’s internationally recognized government.

The ensuing war has killed some 130,000 people and devastated Yemen’s already weak infrastructure, from roads and hospitals to water and electricity. U.N. aid agencies have warned that the hunger crisis caused by the war could turn into full-fledged famine.

The Obama administration greenlighted the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. For years, the U.S. provided the coalition with intelligence, refueled its aircraft, and sold it weapons. American involvement with Saudi Arabia’s command and control was supposed to minimize airstrikes on civilians.

But often, it did not. The coalition was sharply criticized for indiscriminate strikes that hit markets, schools, and other civilian infrastructure, leaving thousands of civilians dead or wounded.

Buthaina became a symbol of that civilian cost when a photo of her after the August 2017 strike went viral, showing her with bruises shutting her eyes. Since losing her family, she has been in the care of her uncle and other relatives.

Decisive military victory for either side has become highly unlikely, and all sides say they want negotiations. But corralling them all to the peace table means dealing with multiple factions each with different international backers with different agendas.

The anti-Houthi ranks have nearly fragmented several times. Most recently in 2019, forces of the Saudi-backed Mr. Hadi clashed with southern separatist factions backed by the United Arab Emirates, which is the other main power in the coalition but deeply distrusts Mr. Hadi.

The infighting eased after a Saudi-brokered deal. But the Houthis exploited the turmoil to make gains in government-held, oil-rich Marib province. They also continued missile and drone attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia – including strikes just days after Mr. Biden’s announcement.

Just a few days after Mr. Biden’s announcement, the Houthis launched a new offensive in Marib and hit Saudi territory with drone attacks.

Mr. Biden appointed a new special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, and called for a cease-fire, the opening of humanitarian channels to deliver more aid, and the return to long-stalled peace talks.

Melanie Ward, executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Britain, called on London to seize a “vital opportunity” to work closely with the Biden administration to address years of gridlock in the U.N. Security Council and to bring Yemen a step closer to lasting peace.

Houthi demands were outlined in a proposal last year. They called for a nationwide cease-fire, the lifting of the coalition’s air, land, and sea blockade and the reopening of roads in battleground areas. An interim period would follow, with negotiations among Yemenis over the country’s future.

The Houthis insisted the deal be negotiated and signed between them and the Saudi-led coalition, clearly aiming to sideline Mr. Hadi’s government, Mr. Salisbury said.

The Saudis demand the rebels surrender their heavy weapons, particularly ballistic missiles. The kingdom backs a 2016 U.N.-brokered draft proposal that would grant the Houthis a minor role in government and pave the way for elections. Mr. Hadi’s government insists any settlement include the return of his government to Sanaa.

Mr. Biden’s cutoff of support, meanwhile, does not immediately set back the coalition’s ability to keep waging the war.

The administration put on hold temporarily several big-ticket arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It said it would end offensive support to the coalition, though it underlined it would continue to help Saudi Arabia boost its defenses against outside attacks.

U.S. officials have not given further specifics, leaving questions over what cooperation will end. For example, it would suggest that Washington will stop sharing intelligence used by the Saudis in targeting in Yemen – but it is unclear if that would also halt intelligence on sites used by Houthis to launch missile or drone strikes into the kingdom.

Mr. Biden also reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. That move has been hailed by aid groups working in Yemen, who feared the designation would disrupt the flow of food, fuel, and other goods barely keeping Yemenis alive.

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The reversal of the designation and the end of U.S. support give “a rare glimpse of hope for a country where six years of brutal war has killed and maimed tens of thousands of people, destroyed houses, farms, markets, schools, and hospitals, and pushed civilians to the cliff edge of famine,” said Mohamed Abdi, Yemen director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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Mark Sappenfield
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