Now in its sixth year, the war in Yemen shows no signs of abating. The country faces what is widely considered the world's worst humanitarian crisis — a situation that has only been exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic. As a new administration prepares to take over in Washington, it is a natural time to assess U.S. policy toward the country. We asked 9 experts to provide their perspective and answer the following question: How should the Biden administration approach Yemen?
The Biden administration needs a Yemen policy
A Biden presidency is a great opportunity to revisit past U.S. interventions toward Yemen, which were shortsighted and counterproductive. The administration needs to adopt a new approach that can help end the conflict in the country and protects U.S. interests in the region long term. Despite its strategic importance, previous U.S. administrations viewed Yemen solely through a security lens, where assistance has been defined by counterterrorism objectives. For decades, the U.S. provided former President Ali Abdullah Saleh with training, arms, and funding that the dictator used to solidify his power and oppress his own people, leading to the 2011 youth uprising.
Following the collapse of the Saleh regime in 2011, the Obama administration relied on drone strikes while outsourcing Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh brokered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, a deeply flawed political deal that forced Saleh from power but allowed him to maintain influence over the military, which he used to help the Houthis destabilize the country. It recycled the old corrupt political elite into power, exacerbating grievances and leading to the deterioration of economic and security conditions. This allowed the Houthis to topple the government and drag the country into a civil war.
Since March 2015, the Obama and Trump administrations both have viewed Yemen through a Saudi-Iranian conflict lens, totally overlooking the local dynamics of the conflict. In doing so, they offered unconditional support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the form of political capital and arms sales. Both countries are responsible for high civilian casualties, major destruction to Yemen’s infrastructure, and gross human rights violations tied to counterterrorism operations. Their mismanagement of the war and divergent agendas further complicated Yemen’s conflict and risks fracturing the country beyond repair.
The Biden administration should first end the unconditional arms sale to the Saudis and the Emiratis and stop outsourcing Yemen to the two Gulf monarchies. It then needs to develop a Yemen policy. This should start by understanding the local dynamics of the conflict in Yemen by talking directly to Yemenis and designing future support accordingly. Biden, however, should not be too hasty to demonstrate a departure from the Trump era by pressuring the Saudis to force the Yemeni government to accept a U.N.-mediated political settlement with the Houthis either. As it currently stands, the U.N.-led mediation process is focused only on the Iran-backed Houthis and the Hadi government, which is heavily controlled by the Saudis, excluding most Yemeni groups. A political settlement under the current formula would play into the hands of the Houthis and, consequently, Iran. Further, it would exacerbate grievances and sow the seeds for more intense cycles of conflict in the future. The Biden administration should use its political capital to push for more inclusive mediation involving other local actors in Yemen. Meanwhile, it should explore ways to extend humanitarian assistance and provide governance and economic support to areas that are relatively stable within the country.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a Yemeni researcher, conflict practitioner, policy analyst, and a specialist on Yemeni tribes, as well as a non-resident fellow at MEI.
The US can try for a "quick win," but the path to a resolution is full of obstacles
The incoming Biden administration will prioritize resolving the Yemen conflict, which they consider a likely prospect for a “quick win.” In doing so, they see an end to the war in Yemen accomplishing several core regional objectives:
- Facilitating international efforts to address what has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis;
- Reducing regional tensions and removing a threat to Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi, security;
- Opening the door to renewed dialogue with Iran; and
- Re-engaging the region on new efforts to end the threat of violent extremism, including across the Bab el-Mandeb in the Horn of Africa.
Despite the almost certain effort to intensify U.S. engagement on Yemen, the path to a resolution is not necessarily straightforward and some of the administration’s own policy preferences may present obstacles to a successful initiative. First and foremost, the administration will need to identify the basic nature of the conflict correctly — that it is a civil war and not a Saudi-Iranian proxy war or a Saudi-Yemen war. While placing Saudi Arabia at the center of the conflict has been popular in Washington and more broadly in Western circles, pressuring the Saudis to end their intervention unilaterally will not resolve the conflict.
In a related matter, the administration will be under pressure to re-balance the relationship with the Saudis and move away from the blank check approach of the Trump administration, especially in regard to Saudi human rights and civil liberties violations and accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There is bipartisan congressional support for ending or restricting Saudi arms sales and support to the Saudi war effort in Yemen while holding Riyadh accountable for the continuation of the conflict. Perversely, this will complicate U.S. efforts to secure critical Saudi cooperation not only in brokering an end to the fighting but also stabilizing post-conflict Yemen and assisting in its reconstruction.
While there may be interest in reviving the effort by former Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a U.S.-led peace deal, the Biden administration would be better off strengthening support for the U.N. effort led by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Doing so would allow the U.S. to avoid the bilateral traps that would complicate a U.S.-only initiative. Moreover, a wild card in the Biden plan is the uncertain decision that the Trump administration may take in its waning days in office, allegedly encouraged by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the Hadi government, to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). While the FTO designation could be undone by the new president, with congressional acquiescence, it would complicate U.S. efforts to offer good offices and further delay an end to the conflict.
Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein is senior vice president at MEI and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
Fatima Abo Alasrar
The US should play a more active role in pursuing peace
Although President-Elect Joe Biden pledged to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, it is useful to remember that the Saudi entanglement in Yemen preceded the Trump administration and happened under his watch. At that time, the war was a balancing act that kept the regional powers in check after the Obama administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which rattled the neighboring Gulf. The former administration gave its tacit approval to the Gulf allies' pursuit of weakening the Islamic Republic’s hand in Yemen and preventing it from becoming another stronghold for the Revolutionary Guards — an objective they were unable to achieve. Coupled with the unfortunate reality that military interventions create more jobs and opportunities in the U.S. military-industrial domain, this fueled a war that worsened Yemen's situation on both the political and humanitarian levels.
What has become clear throughout the six years of conflict is that U.S. administrations simply do not want to be directly involved in a country like Yemen where there is a national security threat from Sunni-affiliated groups through al-Qaeda or ISIS and a danger to the local population and region from Iranian-aligned militias. Given the complex dynamics and multiple actors involved, all former U.S. administrations favored outsourcing Yemen to the Gulf while keeping their prerogative to intervene directly when a national security threat is perceived.
But these limited calculations that focus only on American and regional interests ought to be re-examined considering the human toll and suffering that Yemenis are experiencing today. The U.N. has warned that the situation is likely to get worse. Famine is hitting the majority of households nationwide and the lack of access to services, including water and sanitation, increases the vulnerability of an already fragile country. After six years of intervention, the inability to protect civilians from airstrikes should prompt a serious action plan to de-escalate. Such a plan would also need to address the human rights abuses inflicted on minority groups, women, activists, and the populations held captive by the Houthis.
However, realistically, there is no single action that could be taken to resolve the war, including withdrawing all forms of support to the Saudis (who in turn could buy weapons elsewhere). Moreover, a Biden administration may not sharply deviate from the laissez-faire policy of former U.S. administrations, which often relied on supporting U.N. efforts to advance a peace plan in Yemen.
Regardless of the Biden administration’s strategy in Yemen, it is essential to understand that U.S. involvement, or lack thereof, is being carefully monitored by local groups whose interests are closely intertwined with regional powers. As the incoming Biden administration shapes its policies for dealing with the region, it should avoid creating an imbalance that will fuel the cycle of conflict on the ground. Under such circumstances, the administration has limited options other than supporting a comprehensive peace agreement that would require the cooperation of all actors involved — an outcome that may still take years to realize.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Yemen analyst and non-resident scholar at MEI.
The Yemeni people must be the priority
Yemenis can no longer bear to live with the repercussions of war: poverty, famine, constant fear, and homelessness. We are all aware that the people who pay the price of this war are the civilians. The Biden administration needs to restore respect for American ideals and values in terms of democracy and restore respect for human rights in its foreign policy. The American administration has always viewed Yemen from the perspective of the Saudi-Iranian conflict rather than the lens of the Yemeni people. This can be addressed by giving priority to the Yemeni people, their suffering, their voices, and their appeals to stop the war on a just basis by United Nations resolutions, especially U.N. Resolution 2216. This must be done by applying serious pressure on the United Nations and the Houthi armed group to implement what has already been concluded.
Latifa Jamel is the former chairperson of Yemen Aid and the current president of the American Center for Justice (ACJ).
Yemen policy from the inside out
The United States’ strategic interests in Yemen have often revolved around threats, such as al-Qaeda or the Iranian-backed Houthis, and around protecting economically essential assets adjacent to Yemen, such as Red Sea shipping lanes or Saudi oil facilities. These issues are priorities indeed, but the Biden administration may find the solutions to them lie in focusing on their common thread: Yemen’s stability. For its Yemen policy, the Biden administration should not simply trade the Trump administration’s Iran lens for a Saudi lens but instead employ a Yemen lens.
In addition to a strategic re-think, the United States should consider getting tactical in Yemen. To increase the odds of a global settlement to the war, the United States could work to build international support for a robust humanitarian response to Yemen’s increasingly desperate situation. It could also turn its attention to “following the money” to understand how certain actors in Yemen are benefiting from the war and use any leverage it may have to disincentivize such activity, thus removing barriers to peace. It could work more actively with its partners to counter smuggling, especially of advanced weapons, to the Houthis instead of narrowly focusing on defending Saudi Arabia once missiles are airborne. This may also help alleviate differences in opinion between the Pentagon and Congress, the latter of which has been hesitant about the continued support to Saudi Arabia.
The crisis in Yemen is not one that the Biden administration can solve alone, nor one that will end merely as a result of a change in American policy toward Saudi Arabia. The conflict continues because, despite their regional patronage, no Yemeni party is strong enough to win, weak enough to lose, or, frankly, incentivized toward peace. As a result, the international community has been unable to table a plan that can meet the demands of either the Hadi government or the Houthis. The Biden administration should pursue a Yemen-lensed policy that focuses tactically on creating incentives — where disincentives now exist — for the Yemeni parties to come to the peace table.
Elana DeLozier is the Rubin Family Fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she specializes in Yemen, the Gulf states, and nuclear weapons and proliferation.
To engage constructively, the US should localize its Yemen policy
The Trump administration recently imposed targeted sanctions against several Houthi figures over serious human rights abuses and it is still discussing whether or not to designate the broader Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency as a foreign terrorist organization in the coming weeks. The incoming administration of President-Elect Joe Biden will have to deal with President Donald Trump’s decisions, including those taken in his final days in office. There is a growing fear, however, that the Biden administration could be a repeat of the Obama era when it comes to the Gulf and Yemen.
President Barack Obama pursued de-escalation and rapprochement with Iran that excluded ballistic missiles and non-conventional arms from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had major Middle East foreign policy failures that created a vacuum for Russia to fill, eased the pressure on Tehran and its network of proxy militias, and gave members of the Arab Coalition a blank check in Yemen. While some of these themes may crop up again, the new administration must take a lessons-learned approach to reimagine U.S. Yemen policy, if indeed there is one.
For the Biden administration to engage in a meaningful and constructive way in Yemen, the U.S. should localize its Yemen policy. As Peter Salisbury put it in the title of a recent piece, “Yemen Should be a Factor in U.S. Yemen Policy.” This will first require the U.S. to develop concrete views on Yemen beyond counterterrorism, security, and humanitarian concerns; then factor in regional contexts and strategic considerations, including U.S.-Gulf or U.S.-Iran dynamics; and finally utilize the tools at its disposal to restore America’s leadership role in Yemen’s conflict resolution and stabilization efforts.
The Biden administration should invest in six areas:
- Offering development aid in areas of relative stability, such as Marib, Hadramawt, Socotra, Shabwa, and al-Mahra, to expedite recovery and prompt other states to provide long-term humanitarian-development assistance;
- Doubling down on support for U.N.-led peace processes as the Biden administration will likely seek to rebrand the content of the “Kerry initiative,” proposed by then Secretary of State John Kerry during Obama’s final months, to end the war;
- Increasing economic, political, and security support for the (to be announced) new Government of Yemen;
- Holding the Gulf states accountable for their activities, including those undermining Yemen’s territorial integrity, unity, and legitimacy;
- Preventing Iran from smuggling ballistic missiles and other military equipment to militias; and finally
- Using targeted sanctions against entities and individuals in strategic ways to help, not hinder, the peace process and ensure its implementation on the ground.
With Biden and Iran expressing a mutual interest in returning to the JCPOA and the former’s pledge to end the war in Yemen, it will be a challenge for Washington to balance between improved Iran-U.S. relations and their implications for managing the Houthis. Frustration with the Coalition’s protracted, indecisive involvement in the Yemen war, coupled with human rights concerns and considerable changes in how the war is framed and perceived internationally, should not justify overlooking areas where the U.S. can rebuild its reputation, leadership, and leverage.
Ibrahim Jalal is an independent Yemen and Gulf analyst, a non-resident scholar at MEI, and a co-founder of the Security Distillery Think Tank.
The US needs to take on a leadership role to secure its interests
The Biden administration should chart a new course for Yemen, breaking from the flawed policies under Presidents Obama and Trump. That means retaking a leadership role to secure U.S. interests: defeating al-Qaeda’s threat, reducing Iranian influence, stabilizing the region, and addressing humanitarian conditions. Yemen’s myriad conflicts even beyond its civil war have created opportunities for al-Qaeda and the Houthis to strengthen, destabilized the Arabian Peninsula, and exacerbated already-poor humanitarian conditions. Focusing on these conflicts, rather than just the civil war or counterterrorism, is the best way forward.
The U.S. should help resolve the key underlying issue: the future division of power and resources in Yemen. It should lead efforts to negotiate subnational settlements to reduce conflict, especially where al-Qaeda operates. Such steps will begin stabilizing parts of Yemen, making it less permissive for al-Qaeda and improving access for humanitarian and development assistance. Additionally, the U.S. should ensure the Houthis do not benefit from assistance programs while also preventing partners from taking actions that drive the Houthis toward Iran.
Crucially, the Biden administration needs to resist the temptation to break with Saudi Arabia altogether in Yemen. Hammering the Saudis (or Emiratis) for worsening Yemen’s catastrophic humanitarian conditions may play well in Congress but will not create the conditions necessary to end Yemen’s war. Saudi activities in Yemen are not contingent on U.S. support, and the move will distance a key Gulf partner, especially should Iranian nuclear negotiations resume. Instead, quietly helping the Saudis exit the military conflict without further empowering the Houthis — or Iran — would be energy better spent.
What’s clear from the past is that U.S. diplomacy from Riyadh, rhetoric about negotiated solutions, and support for the U.N.-led effort have done little for Yemenis and the U.S. Extending the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran to Yemen and subcontracting U.S. interests to Saudi Arabia has done even less. And counterterrorism gains are eroding. Previous U.S. policy has failed. The Biden administration now has to show smart, tough leadership to keep regional partners in line as it moves to achieve U.S. goals in Yemen and the region.
Katherine Zimmerman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and an adviser to AEI’s Critical Threats Project.
Yemen cheat sheet for Biden
Focus on Yemen itself and not as a side issue in regional relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Yemen is complicated and should not be left to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi to interpret.
Coordinate among allies to get more humanitarian aid and relief to all of Yemen, including Houthi-controlled territories, despite manipulation of the aid. Press for more transparency but deliver aid. COVID has taken global humanitarian attention away from Yemen, but Yemen is desperate, truly. Here, support to better manage the inspection regime might help the flow of goods through Hodeida.
Prod the Saudis or perhaps the Emiratis to make another deposit in the Central Bank of Yemen in Aden to aid the Yemeni riyal, perhaps with U.S. support for building the Central Bank’s and the banking system’s capabilities (and possible check corruption). Inflation is eroding purchasing power and increasing hunger.
Help set a more conducive military environment for talks. Get the Saudis to limit military activity in Yemen to the defense of Marib (or anywhere else the Houthis open a new offensive) and not attack Sanaa, Dhamar, or Saadah. Marib is politically important for the northern faction of the anti-Houthi alliance and the future of a multilateral political settlement in the north. The Houthi regime might be prodded to stop its attacks on Saudi Arabia in exchange for limiting the geography of Saudi air support for the forces of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. If possible, the U.S. might help coordinate a more effective blockade of advanced weapons technology reaching the Houthis to ease Saudi fears.
As a relatively easy confidence building measure, push for another prisoner exchange but include the high-value prisoners like Hadi’s brother, Nasser Mansour, Islahi leader Mohammad Qahtan, and Mohammad al-Subayhi, former defense minister.
Revise U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 (due for renewal in 2021) to recognize Houthi de facto governance in the north and facilitate a more realistic political dialogue. Yemen is de facto divided, and the sides are incompatible for the time being. A period of stabilizing two Yemens may be a constructive step before a single national government is conceivable.
Charles Schmitz is a professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland and a non-resident scholar at MEI.
Anne-Linda Amira Augustin
Anne-Linda Amira Augustin
Promoting an inclusive peace process for Yemen
Since 2015, Yemen has been hit by warfare, economic decline, and a humanitarian disaster. Although the United Nations is mediating between the conflict parties, a solution to the war is not in sight. A major reason for this stalemate lies in the structures and constraints on which the U.N.-led peace process for Yemen is based. The Biden administration could support a broad peace process for the country that brings forth a lasting solution.
Since the war began, the two conflict parties — the internationally-recognized Hadi government and the Houthis — have gathered only three times, in Geneva (2015), Kuwait (2016), and Stockholm (2018), to discuss an end to the fighting. However, these meetings did not result in further talks or peace negotiations. In recent years, both parties have shown only limited interest in peace. The Houthis, who rule over the majority of Yemenis and took over state institutions in 2014, are in the comfortable position that they do not need to compromise with a government that has only limited control in the areas designated under its control and where it hardly represents the population.
The war was imposed upon all people in Yemen and has been very destructive for the entire population. Besides the two recognized conflict parties, a large number of other actors exist — those directly involved in warfare, as well as those targeted by the war, such as civil society, including women and youth, all of whom have been excluded from negotiations in the past. The Southern Transitional Council and other southern representatives struggling to reestablish an independent state on the territory of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen are a major group excluded from the peace talks and are working to become integrated into the negotiations. However, the international community has left the fate of the country in the hands of those who brought about the war and are today entrenched in their diverging positions.
Only an inclusive peace process can bring forth lasting peace for Yemen to which all conflict parties, political stakeholders, and civil society actors need to agree. The Biden administration could push for a new U.N. resolution that replaces the former resolutions that recognized the Houthis and the Hadi government as conflict parties and demanded the return to the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference. U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffith should get support to establish an inclusive and broad peace process without any preconditions or restrictions. Future peace talks need to be opened up to include many other important issues, such as the southern cause — the grievances in South Yemen and the marginalization of South Yemenis emanating from unification in 1990 and the war in 1994 that resulted in the demand for reestablishing an independent state in the South. Any solution that is not compatible with the will and the aspirations of the people will fail and further destabilize the region.
Anne-Linda Amira Augustin is a political advisor in the European Representative Office of the Southern Transitional Council, a non-resident scholar at MEI, and a founding member of the Academic Forum Muhammad Ali Luqman.