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Joe Biden and Yemen: Is peace unachievable?

New US administration takes a different path than Trump and Obama

By Stephanie Iancu

After six years of brutal conflict in one of the world’s poorest countries, new decisions brought forth by the Biden administration are doubted to be enough to bring a peaceful resolution.

In early February, the White House announced its intention to end support towards the war largely led by a Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen, which the President described as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. It was confirmed by the Pentagon the following day that this means that all non combat assistance to the coalition’s operations, including “intelligence and some advice and best practices’’, as well as ‘’relevant arms sales’’ will be terminated. This marks a significant shift in the United States’ policy since its first involvement in the conflict in 2015.

The decision has been pending for no less than four years, since the Obama administration promised an immediate review of U.S. support after the 2016 Saudi-led attack using American-made bombs that killed more than 140 people at a funeral in the capital city of Sana.

The administration also announced it would reverse one of the last actions of the outgoing Trump administration, which was to designate the local Houthi rebel group as a terrorist organization. This decision provoked a mixed response among experts and diplomats alike, with some applauding the reversal and others fearing that it might remove some of the pressure to negotiate placed on the group.

Photo Curtesy of Gareth Williams via Creative Commons

A cruel internal war has been devastating Yemen since 2014, when a group of Houthi rebels — which championed Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority — stormed and took the capital city of Sana, as well as much of the country’s North Western territories, dislodging the internationally recognized government in power at the time. The event occurred at a time of political instability following the Arab Spring uprising that forced longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his authoritarian government to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011. Mr. Hadi’s newly instated government had been experiencing multiple difficulties, such as attacks by jihadists, widespread corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

Many Yemenis were feeling disillusioned with the transition, which had initially promised to bring long-awaited stability to the country.

The insurrection by what seemed to be a group of rebels receiving support from regional Shia power provoked a response from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two states launched a joint bombing campaign against the Houthis in March 2015, as well as a blockade of air and sea routes into the country and the deployment of troops to assist local proxy forces after Mr. Hadi and his government were forced to flee the country.

The coalition also received intelligence support from the United States, United Kingdom and France, whose goal was to avoid the exacerbation of tensions within a region through which a large part of the world's oil shipments were transiting.

The US military also provided aerial refueling for the coalition’s air campaign and supply of arms-sale packages.

The initial forecast emitted by Saudi officials was that the clash would only last a few weeks and give way to a clear victory on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, but the conflict became increasingly complex as time went by, with multiple other rebel groups, Islamists, separatists and tribal groups joining. Militants from al-Qaeda and the local affiliate of the rival Islamic State (IS) also attempted to take advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the country’s Southern regions.

The ongoing conflict has been described as one the world’s most dire humanitarian crises. Tens of thousands of civilian deaths — many of them upon airstrikes and direct attacks —, horrifying cholera outbreaks, famine and multiple other afflictions have plagued what is one of the world’s poorest countries since the start of the conflict.

International charity Save the Children estimated the death toll caused by malnutrition among children between 2015 and 2018 at around 85,000 casualties. It was also reckoned that up to 80% of the Yemeni population was in need of humanitarian assistance and the continuing coronavirus pandemic is predicted to further exacerbate the crisis in a country where almost 20 million people lack access to adequate healthcare.

The Trump Administration refused to take action against the supply of U.S.-made arms during its term, despite the ongoing deadly attacks perpetrated with these arms against the Yemeni population and growing congressional opposition at home. Former president Donald Trump often spoke about the benefits for the American economy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the close ties the two countries shared.

It is estimated that the Trump administration added around $25 billion in weapons and support to the initial $115 billion provided by the Obama administration.

Many experts are doubtful of the Biden administration’s capacity to end this ongoing conflict — which has already displaced more than 3.65 million Yemenis from their homes — by simply ending its support. There is nevertheless a sliver of hope, as it has been observed that the new administration will be putting much more emphasis on diplomacy through the appointment of Timothy A. Lenderking, a highly experienced diplomat that has focused on the region for many years, as a special envoy and many hope that he will bring some much-needed expertise to peace discussions. The Biden administration also went on to voice its support for a cease-fire and its commitment to ensuring the Yemeni population would have access to sufficient and adequate humanitarian aid.

Much still remains to be specified on behalf of the U.S. though and many caution against excessive optimism regarding these latest updates. It is also evident that — the United States being only one of the relevant actors — this is only a first step towards durably ending hostilities in the region.


The article is an entry to the 2021 Writing Competition of The Gaudie International.


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