Biden Yemen policy reset major setback to Saudi Arabia

Double whammy for Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen

Politics

February 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Biden Yemen policy reset major setback to Saudi Arabia

United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis (Photo:AP)

The decision by new United States President Joe Biden to remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the list of terror groups, just a few days after he ended US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen is a serious, almost mortal blow to the Gulf nation’s misadventures.

While it was certain that the new President of the United States Joe Biden would modify and even reverse several of the most controversial decisions taken by his predecessor Donald Trump, the pace and the range of these radical alterations in US policy, notably the foreign policy has caught most by surprise, not least of those caught in the aftermath of these changes.

One of the biggest reversals in the US foreign policy concerns one of its closest allies, Saudi Arabia. In the matter of barely a week, the US President has delivered two shocks to the Arab nation and both concerning its ongoing war in Yemen, where the Saudi-led international coalition has been caught in a bloody stalemate with Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have been able to stave off practically everything that the powerful coalition and its allies have managed to throw at them.

On Friday, the White House announced that the Houthis were no longer on the list of international terrorist organisations, a decision taken by Trump administration, literally at the fade end of the twilight of his extremely controversial term.

Trump’s parting gift to Saudi Arabia

Days before he was to exit the White House, the Trump administration designated the Houthi insurgents a terrorist organisation. The move was heavily criticised, both at home and overseas as it threatened to severely disrupt international aid efforts and derail United Nations’ efforts to broker peace between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Riyadh, which has been at war with the Houthis for over five years, had already designated the Houthis a terrorist organisation and had urged Washington to do the same.

Senator Chris Murphy, an influential Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the designation was a “clear attempt by the Trump administration to hamstring future peace negotiations.”

“The Houthis and their financial supporters are already subject to U.S. sanctions, so the practical impact of the designation would be exclusively to make it more difficult to negotiate with Houthi leaders and to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled areas, where the majority of Yemenis still live,” Murphy had said.

“There is no doubt that the Houthis have led a brutal military campaign that has starved, imprisoned and killed many civilians,” Murphy added. “But if the U.S. government is going to designate international actors for intentionally harming civilians in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition should also be at the top of that list.”

Human rights organisations had also lashed out at the decision. US-based Human Rights Watch warned of the consequences of US designation. “Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and US actions that would interfere with the work of aid organisations could have catastrophic consequences,” said the organisation’s Yemen researcher, Afrah Nasser, in a report. “Any designation of the Houthis should at a minimum provide clear and immediate exemptions for humanitarian aid, but millions of lives should not have to depend on that.”

The U.N. describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80 pc of its people in need of food and emergency aid just in order to survive. The Yemeni war has been one of the bloodiest in recent years and is believed to have killed over 100,000 persons so far and pushed about 20 million persons, 4 in 5 Yemenis, into starvation and extreme poverty.

Over 90 pc of Yemenis are dependent upon food imports and they have been choked by restrictions, fees, and double inspections, according to Mohammed Abdi, country director, Yemen of Norwegian Refugee Council. He goes on to say that a political tug-of-war over fuel is preventing crops from being irrigated or transported to markets and aid agencies are being blocked from reaching hungry communities. The situation is so grave that even those who have jobs are often not paid for them. An estimated half a million doctors, teachers, and other public servants have not received a salary in four years.

The US says that its decision was taken entirely on humanitarian grounds and to precisely ease the hardships that Abdi says Yemenis have been subjected to for nearly a decade of civil war. “Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” an official of the US State Department said.

Biden ends support to military campaign as well

The move to remove Houthis from terror groups’ list came just a day after President Biden halted US support for the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, which is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the main backer of the Houthis.

The Houthis have been battling Yemen’s UN-recognised government since 2014. When the Houthis, mainly Shias, registered major victories over the Yemeni forces, leaving them in a complete disarray, it alarmed Saudi Arabia that feared that a Houthi win in Yemen would allow Iran to set up bases on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, a nightmarish scenario for the belligerent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been the de-facto ruler of the Kingdom for nearly half a decade.

He led his country into the war in 2015, even before he was formally named the Crown Prince of the Kingdom. The belief in Riyadh was that the Saudi army, heavily equipped with far superior weaponry from the United States and other Western powers, would deal with the rag-tag Houthi army which only had Iranian-supplied weapons, within a matter of weeks.

However, soon enough the Saudis and their allies, the United Arab Emirates, found themselves bogged down in an unwinnable war. The only thing that has kept them going in the war and perhaps the only thing standing between them and a defeat in the war was the ‘soft’ support that the coalition received from the US, UK and France – notably intelligence and logistics.

This has now been put an end to by the Biden administration, which decided to end American support for offensive operations in Yemen. The decision came on the heels of another order to pause the sale of smart-bomb technology to Saudi Arabia, which has been widely criticized for its conduct in the war.

The US is now moving from watching the war from the sidelines to taking the centre stage in the Yemen crisis. The Biden administration has also decided to appoint a special envoy to Yemen charged with helping end the civil war.

For a country and its 24 million people who have been ravaged but war for far too long, the series of positive decisions made by Joe Biden and in quick succession would be extremely welcome. Riyadh is unlikely to misunderstand or ignore the clear message that Washington DC’s recent moves send on the coalition’s war effort. While officially MBS may be too recalcitrant to put an end to the war, he may well ask his generals to go slow and sue for peace, especially if he gets the cover of a call by the US President to join in the international peace effort.

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