President Joe Biden announced an end to United States support for Saudi-led military offensive operations in Yemen, indicating that the new administration is planning a more active US role in efforts to end the country’s civil war. “The war has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as president. ”This war has to end.” “At the same time,” he said on Thursday, “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV (drone) strikes and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
Saudi Arabia welcomed Biden’s remarks, particularly his commitment to the country’s defense and addressing threats against it, according to the country’s state news agency. The ending of US support for the offensive will not affect any US operations against the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, group, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Biden also announced the choice of Timothy Lender-king as special envoy to Yemen. Lender-king has extensive experience dealing with Yemen and the Gulf. He has been the deputy assistant secretary of state for Gulf affairs and served in the US embassy in Riyadh. The Yemen reversal is one of a series of changes Biden laid out Thursday that he said would be part of a course correction for US foreign policy. That’s after President Donald Trump — and some Republican and Democratic administrations before his — often aided authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability.
The announcement on Yemen fulfills a campaign pledge. But it also shows Biden putting the spotlight on a major humanitarian crisis that the United States has helped aggravate. The reversing of policy also comes as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia, a global oil giant and US strategic partner. Sullivan on Thursday reiterated Biden’s pledge, made during the 2020 presidential campaign, that he would curtail US support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, including ending arms agreements.
“It extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis,” Sullivan said. “The types of examples of that include two arms sales of precision-guided munitions that the president has halted that were moving forward at the end of the last administration.” Sullivan added that the US has spoken with senior officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia as part of “a policy of no surprises with these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”
Yemen’s civil war pits the internationally recognized government against the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including large numbers of civilians, and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 on the side of the government and enjoyed the backing of the Trump administration, with the war increasingly seen as a proxy conflict between the US and Iran.
But the mounting civilian death toll and growing humanitarian calamity – the United Nations (UN) estimates that 80 percent of Yemen’s 24 million people are in need – fueled bipartisan demands for an end to US support for Riyadh. The UN has been struggling to broker peace talks between the government and the Houthis, an effort that Lender-king likely would be tasked with boosting.
Biden’s decision to name a special envoy comes as the State Department reviews a Trump administration designation last month of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign ‘terrorist’ organization. The US last week approved all transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement for the next month as it carries out the review. But the UN is still hearing concerns that companies are planning to cancel or suspend business with Yemen despite the move. The UN and aid groups have called the designation to be reversed, warning it would push Yemen into a large-scale famine.