Ten years since fall of Saleh, US struggles with Yemen minefield
CAIRO —With his decision to halt support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, US President Joe Biden marked the launch of a new push to bring an end to a 6-year-war that has caused the Arab world’s poorest nation to further collapse into a humanitarian catastrophe.
But reaching peace will be a difficult path. The warring parties have not held substantive negotiations since 2019. A deal brokered by the UN 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’ drive to tighten their grip on the north of the country has only grown more aggressive as the Iran-backed militias seek to capture new territory from forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government.
Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, said Biden’s policy shift was “really welcome news.” But, he said, that “won’t automatically mean an end to the war, at all.”
A decade later
Yemen on Thursday marked 10 years since the fall of longtime ruler 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 Sana’a along with much of the country’s north, ousting the government of Saleh’s successor, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition that has waged a ferocious air campaign, while supporting allied forces controlling the south.
The ensuing war is said to have killed some 130,000 people and devastated Yemen’s already weak infrastructure, from roads and hospitals to water and electricity. UN aid agencies have warned that the hunger crisis caused by the war could turn into full-fledged famine.
The administration of former US President Barack Obama green-lighted the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. For years, the US provided the coalition with intelligence, refueled its aircraft and sold it weapons. American involvement with Saudi Arabia’s command and control was supposed to minimise airstrikes on civilians.
But often, it did not. The coalition was sharply criticised for the air strikes. But military experts blame the Houthis for endangering the lives of civilians by their tactics on top of documented human rights abuses against civilians.
A decisive military victory has become highly unlikely, especially since Iran ratcheted up its intervention in Yemen through military advisers and the smuggling of advanced weapons to help their local proxies, the Houthis.
The anti-Houthi ranks have also nearly fragmented several times. Most recently in 2019, forces of the Saudi-backed Hadi clashed with southern separatist factions.
The infighting eased after a Saudi-brokered deal, known as “the Riyadh agreement.” 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 Biden’s announcement.
Just a few days after Biden’s announcement, the Houthis launched a new offensive in Marib and hit Saudi territory with drone attacks.
US still in the picture
Biden appointed a new special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, and called for a ceasefire, 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 UN Security Council and to bring Yemen a step closer to lasting peace.
Houthi demands ware outlined in a proposal last year. They called for a nationwide ceasefire, 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 Hadi’s government, Salisbury said.
The plan, according to experts, highlighted the Houthis’ desire to uphold the current status quo in their favour, whether through military means or negotations.
The Saudis demand the pro-Iranian militants surrender their heavy weapons, particularly ballistic missiles. The kingdom backs a 2016 UN-brokered draft proposal that would grant the Houthis a minor role in government and pave the way for elections. Hadi’s government insists any settlement include the return of his government to Sana’a.
Biden’s cutoff of support, meanwhile, does not immediately set back the coalition’s ability to keep waging the war.
The administration said it would end offensive support to the coalition, though it underlined it would continue to help Saudi Arabia boost its defences against outside threats.
The Biden administration recently said it was stopping offensive support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen. However, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, made the distinction between intelligence meant to help the Saudis defend themselves against attacks emanating from Yemen and intelligence in support of Saudi offensive operations in Yemen.
“We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence, when we can, about those attacks,” McKenzie said. “What we will not do is help them strike, to continue to conduct offensive operations into Yemen.”
Biden also reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. 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. But the Houthis’ strikes at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, including the attack on Abha airport, showed the limits of Houthis’ commitment to de-escalation and much less comprehensive peace.