Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yemen: A Northern Offensive Makes Diplomacy More Urgent

Houthi rebels
Forces loyal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels carry the coffins of fighters killed during battles with Saudi-backed government troops, during a mass funeral in the capital Sanaa’s al-Saleh mosque, on February 24, 2021. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

The new US Administration under President Joe Biden has broken with past policy in Yemen by discontinuing offensive support for the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and lifting the designation of Houthi rebels as terrorists. While welcome on one front, the Houthis offensive in the north of the country could make diplomatic efforts more urgent.

After international uproar that the Trump administration’s Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis in Yemen a terrorist organisation, US president Joe Biden has swiftly reversed that decision while maintaining sanctions on three key Houthi figures.

The announcement, made on 12 February, 2021, is part of a shift in policy for the US in Yemen, as announced in a foreign policy speech at the beginning of February 2021.

In that wide ranging statement covering the US relations with several states, Biden stated that the US would be “stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen (…) And to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”.

“The revocation of the designations will provide profound relief to millions of Yemenis who rely on humanitarian assistance and commercial imports to meet their basic survival needs”, said Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, “It will help ensure that much-needed essential goods reach them without significant delays”.

The conflict in Yemen has been raging since 2014, when Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels ousted the government after years of social and economic disenfranchisement. Violence escalated, however, when an international coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened to provide military and logistical support to the Sunni government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The coalition has received US assistance in the form of weapons, training and intelligence since 2015, green lit by former US President Barack Obama, while support was further ramped up by successor Donald Trump.

Just before leaving office Trump designated the Houthis a terrorist organisation, which aid organisations said would make getting aid to those in need even more difficult in already challenging circumstances — the UN has called the Yemen crisis the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, with 233,000 having died as a result of the conflict.

Reversal of the designation, therefore, was lauded by many Yemenis and western diplomats. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the lifting of the designation on 12 February, calling it “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen”.

In addition to the three Houthi leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim remaining under sanctions, Blinken said the US is looking at those responsible for attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and on Saudi Arabia as well as the cabinet of the new government at the end of 2020.

The initial move to designate the Houthis a terrorist organisation was widely seen as a move against Iran, with whom the Houthis are aligned by receiving some support. Reports have indicated Houthi forces have caused suffering amongst civilian populations, an UN panel saying they may have committed war crimes.

At the beginning of this month, the Houthis continued an offensive to seize the energy-rich city of Marib in the north of the country, the last stronghold of the government. If the Houthis succeed, it will be a blow to the Hadi government and raises the same humanitarian concerns as those during the battle of Hodeida in 2018.

Yemeni tribesmen gather in a square during a Houthi organised gathering to announce mobilization of fighters and to gather financial support for their fighters in the Marib Governorate on February 22, 2021. Photo: AFP

Baraa Shaiban, MENA caseworker for NGO Reprieve, told Al Jazeera the Biden Administration had rushed and “quickly stripped itself from all of the leverage points they have”, a missed opportunity to ensure humanitarian access.

Biden has shown support for an UN-brokered ceasefire and in a statement on 16 February 2021, a statement from the Department of State urged the group, also known as Ansar Allah, to stop the offensive.

“If the Houthis are serious about a negotiated political solution, they must cease all military advances and refrain from other destabilizing and potentially lethal actions, including cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia”, read the statement from Ned Price, a department spokesperson.

“They must commit to constructively participate in the UN-led political process and engage seriously in the diplomatic effort led by U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. The time to end this conflict is now. There is no military solution”.

While the new Administration has shown more support for the Houthi movement compared to Donald Trump, there is still some skepticism as to how much a US-brokered ceasefire or peace the Houthis will welcome.

While the US said it was withdrawing its support for the Saudi-led coalition, there is a sense the move is largely symbolic as US support is limited intelligence sharing and weapons sales, which some argue would be sought from other brokers such as China or Russia.

The decision has been seen as unlikely to cause a rift in the Saudi-US relationship. A key mention in Biden’s foreign policy statement was that Saudi could depend on the US to help defend its sovereignty, which would include attacks on its territory. Such attacks have been made by the Houthis and “Iranian-supplied forces” from multiple countries, as mentioned in the statement.

In a report by Defence News, the head of US Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie iterated that American support would still be available to help Saudi Arabia’s defensive capabilities. So, while offensive weapons for use in the war on Yemen would be frozen, exemptions would be made for defensive systems.

“Over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks. What we will not do is help them strike and continue to conduct offensive operations into Yemen”, Mckenzie said.

The pointed reference to Iran, considered a mutual threat by the US and Saudi, is why a decoupling of Saudi and U.S. cooperation is unlikely, according to Becca Wasser, a regional expert with the Center for a New American Security. The policy nonetheless is likely to displease Riyadh, says Wasser, and may have knock-on effects for other areas of Biden’s priorities. Things to look out for may be the Iran nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, with Biden naming Lenderking the US Special Envoy for Yemen, a career diplomat specialising in the Middle East, it further illuminates the US’s stance toward finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Among Yemenis, there are expectations for the US to help end the war and seek accountability for crimes during the six-year-conflict.

The impact to civilians has been dire and fighting in Marib may cut off connectivity between the city and other government-controlled areas, leaving one paved road out for civilians. According to UNOCHA one million internally displaced persons were in Marib before the escalation.

The International Crisis Group has said sustained fighting would exacerbate a food crisis in country already near famine, it could lead to fuel shortages and start a chain reaction for intensified fighting elsewhere triggering ruptures in the new power sharing deal between Hadi and southern secessionists.

The diplomatic way forward still has in its way huge challenges in getting Hadi and the Houthis to the negotiating table. International pressure could help achieve a ceasefire as soon as possible and deter the offensive on Marib from escalating further.

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