If Biden is serious about reaching a diplomatic end to the war, he has a real chance to add ending one of the twenty-first century’s most violent conflicts to his presidential legacy, but the chance of the happening may be slim
As news broke that Joe Biden almost certainly won the U.S. presidential election, some Americans became hopeful that the new administration could hearken in an era of calm in the Middle East. In Yemen, however, that sentiment was not shared.
Most Yemenis have little hope that the new White House will end the blockade and the devastating war in their country, which is now nearing the end of its sixth year. Nor are they hopeful that the announcement that U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen could end during Biden’s presidential term will materialize into action after he is sworn into office on January 20, 2021.
Ibrahim Abdulkareem, who lost his 11-month-old daughter, Zainab when a Saudi warplane dropped an American-made bomb on his home in Sana`a in 2015, told MintPress that Biden’s statement is not good news to him, ”I am not optimistic that Biden will stop supplying Bin Salman with bombs like the ones that killed my daughter,” he said. Like Ibrahim, Yemeni civilians are losing their loved ones, homes, and infrastructure to American weapons supplied to the Saudi Coalition in droves, and there is little hope that president-elect Biden will end support, including the supply of weapons and military equipment, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Iranian boogeyman
In fact, officials in both Sana’a and Aden – the respective seats of power for the opposing sides in Yemen’s war – see little chance that Biden will take action to end the conflict given the current geopolitical reality in the Middle East. That reality includes the fever of normalization with Israel sweeping across Arab governments, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are no exception. Closely related is the ongoing obsession from concurrent U.S. administrations with trying to contain so-called “Iranian influence” in the Middle East and linking the war in Yemen with that effort.
Yemeni politicians have called on Biden to change how the White House views the conflict and to stop treating it as a proxy war with Iran over influence. Unfortunately, it has been reduced down to that binary argument, with U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle blaming the entire affair on Iran, reductively claiming that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, and framing the entire conflict in an Iran-centric geopolitical context – and not the true context of foreign aggression and a battle to control the strategic areas and some of the region’s most lucrative untapped oil and gas reserves.
Most Yemenis view American support for the Saudi-led coalition not only as fueling the fighting but also view the American government as a party to serious war crimes in their country, directly at fault for the devastating humanitarian crisis they now face. Yemen is on the verge of yet another countdown to catastrophe as it faces a devastating famine within a few short months according to a recent report by the UN issued on Wednesday. That famine, in large part, stems not only from the Saud-led war and blockade, but from drastic cuts to humanitarian food and aid programs implemented by President Trump.
Since March 2015, when the war began, rather than halting weapons sales or pressuring Saudi Arabia diplomatically, the White House instead opted to ignore calls from the international community to address the suffering of Yemeni civilians. Worse yet, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been given carte blanche to carry out the most brazen and egregious violations of international law and collective murder in modern history without so much as a scolding from the United States.
The Saudi-led war has killed more than 100,000 people since January 2016, according to a report by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project (ACLED). That figure does not include those who have died in the humanitarian disasters sparked by the conflict, particularly famine and the thousands of tons of weapons, most often supplied by the United States, that have been dropped on hospitals, schools, markets, mosques, farms, factories, bridges, and power and water treatment plants.
Thirsty for peace
If Biden is serious about reaching a diplomatic end to the war, he has a real chance to add ending one of the twenty-first century’s most violent conflicts to his presidential legacy. Yemen is thirsty for peace. Both the resistance forces led by Ansar Allah and the Saudi-backed militant groups’ that oppose them have signaled a desire to reach a political settlement, a sentiment, of course, not readily reflected by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Those governments, however, do face increasingly dwindling support among the same forces in Yemen that allegedly invited them to intervene in their country under the auspices of returning ousted president Abdul Mansour Hadi to power. Now, even among the coalition’s staunchest allies, Saudi Arabia’s actions are increasingly seen as little more than an effort to balkanize the nation into regions and factions that can more easily be managed.
Among the Houthis (Ansar Allah), the most stalwart of forces opposed to a foreign presence in Yemen, an attitude of reconciliation pervades. Throughout the conflict, the group has proven its propensity for diplomatic rapprochement and a desire to work within the structures of international mediators to negotiate an end to the war. According to high-ranking officials in Sana’a, preparations for negotiations are being made in case the Biden administration is serious about ending the war.
However, the group’s leadership is taking Biden’s statement with a grain of salt. A wait and see approach persists among decision-makers in Sana’a, and rumors are flying that Biden may work with Yemen’s Brotherhood, a Saudi Arabia ally.
Untangling the quagmire
Trump’s own legacy in the Middle East is another factor that Biden will have to maneuver if he wishes to untangle the complex quagmire that is Yemen. The Trump administration recently notified Congress that it approved the sale of more than $23bn in advanced weapons systems, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, to the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent partner in its war on Yemen. The Houthis have played down the announcement, saying that consent is one thing, but delivery is another entirely and if the Biden administration does go through with the sale, they will consider it a crime against Yemen.
High-ranking Houthi officials told MintPress that while they do not expect the president-elect to recognize their right to sovereignty, they are hopeful that the situation in Yemen will be re-assessed by the incoming administration and that the Houthis will no longer be seen as a threat to Washington or their allies in the region, and there is some evidence to substantiate that idea.
Every Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been retaliatory, not preemptive, in nature. Even the attack on the Saudi Aramco facility on September 14, 2019, came in response to ongoing Saudi Coalition military maneuvers inside Yemen. Prior to the 2015 Saudi-led Coalition war on their country, the Houthis did not show animus towards the Kingdom, nor a desire to target it militarily. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia a major exporter of the same kind of jihadist ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, groups that the Kingdom has used to try to undermine Houthi power, making the Houthis a natural ally to any force working to contain those organizations.
Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen in March of 2015 under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Salman claimed his objective in launching the war was to roll back the Houthis and reinstate ousted former Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled the country to Saudi Arabia following popular protests during the Arab Spring. From the moment the highly unpopular war began, Saudi officials have worked hard to frame it as a necessary step in liberating the Arab country from Iran, repeating the still unfounded claim that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy.
Continued pressure on Yemen will inevitably force the Houthis to lean more heavily into their relationships with Iran, Russia, and China, all perceived enemies of the United States, as they indeed have done under the Trump presidency. Iran’s newly appointed ambassador to Yemen arrived in Sana’a last month, and prior to that, the Houthis sent an ambassador to Tehran. Syria and Qatar are expected to follow and reopen their embassies in Sana’a according to Houthi officials, and if the staggering human cost of the war is not enough, that should give Biden an incentive not to allow the protracted conflict to carry on..
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.