Yemen crisis: Bidening the crisis

Ahmed Mostafa , Saturday 13 Feb 2021

Many are drawing an analogy with Barak Obama’s policy in the region, which actually made no difference

Bidening the crisis
Houthis attend a rally denouncing the Trump administration’s decision to designate the Iran-backed movement a terrorist group, in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa (photo: AFP)

A political settlement of the Yemen crisis seemed more plausible than ever last week when American President Joe Biden outlined his administration’s foreign policy.

In a speech at the State Department in Washington, Biden said, “This war has to end... And to underscore our commitment; we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales”.

Yet the American president reiterated Washington’s position in support of Saudi Arabia defending itself in the face of external threats. That meant all defence arms deals will still go ahead.

Every party in the region interpreted Biden’s statement the way they liked, but realistic analysts concluded that ending the war in Yemen would require much more than a “Biden call”. As one Western diplomat who has previously served in the region put it, “The anticipated change in the US position on Yemen would not have much impact on the dynamics of the conflict in the war-torn country.”

Many are drawing an analogy with Barak Obama’s policy in the region, which actually made no difference. When Iran-backed Houthi rebels ended up controlling most of the country, ousting a legitimate government in 2014, a Saudi-led coalition backing said government intervened militarily in the country to push the rebels and reinstate it. All this took place under Obama, when Biden was vice president.

Prominent columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Biden’s stand on Yemen could be the best approach to “the most difficult issue” in Saudi-American relations.

“We were surprised by Biden’s vow to protect Saudi Arabia from attacks by Iranian Houthis. It is a step forward, even beyond Trump’s administration… we expect one of two things: either the Houthis will stop targeting Saudi cities, which would be a positive development making a political solution more viable, or they will send drones and rockets over the border, enabling Saudi F-15 fighters to respond.

The Houthis would then be violating an American ceasefire.” Al Rashed suggests that then US would be part of the escalation and stand by its promise to support Saudi Arabia.

But the Houthis went for the second option. Just 48 hours after the American administration notified Congress that it would remove the Houthis from its list of foreign terrorist organisations, Saudi defences intercepted drone attacks from Yemen. The Biden administration’s response was to warn the Houthi rebels against ongoing attacks on civilians.

A State Department statement on Sunday said, “As the president is taking steps to end the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has endorsed a negotiated settlement, the United States is deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks… 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”.

For many Saudis, that is not so different from the Trump administration’s reaction to attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019, claimed by Houthis and believed to be launched by Iran. Riyadh expected the Americans to strike Iran, but Trump just expressed verbal support.

But diplomatic rhetoric will not solve the Yemen debacle; even if Yemen is included in an American-Iranian deal on the latter’s nuclear programme and regional interference. More than six years of war and destruction in the country have left it close to “irreparable”.

Whether it is Trump or Biden in the White House, it might not make that much difference as the internal scene in Yemen has become more complicated and local parties are now entrenched in a destructive course. Fragmentation on tribal, sectarian and to a lesser extent political lines is wiping out even the small changes external military intervention achieved – mainly weakening the presence of terrorist groups, especially in the south of the country.

The Biden administration’s policy might even add to that complication if its anticipated deal with Iran is not comprehensive.

From the start of the war in Yemen, the coalition knew there would be no military solution. At the end of the day, local Yemeni parties would settle the conflict politically. But the Saudis are wary of the Iranian presence on their southern borders via their proxy, the Houthi militia.

Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al Ahram Weekly, “It was the initial goal of the coalition to support the legitimate government. [There was] no military solution in Yemen and the crisis would be settled politically.

The military campaign was mainly in opposition to Iranian interference through the Houthi militia”. But Alkhames sees the new American position as an opportunity is a different way.

“Washington’s disengagement makes room for other powers to play an active role in the region. France is a good example, and President Macron is working closely with allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE to sort out many regional issues. The Biden administration’s restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia give us to diversify our sources.”

Yemenis inside the country welcomed the change in Washington, the main beneficiary of which will probably be the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Islah Party, now a component of the Saudi-backed government.

Some 80 per cent of the Yemeni population cannot satisfy their basic needs, and they only care about retrieving normality.

As one Yemeni commentator put it, “They are less interested in Trumping or Bidening the crisis.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: