The decisions taken by the Biden administration to end the war in Yemen have ironically yielded the opposite effect: an unprecedented military escalation, more victims, and a worsening humanitarian crisis. This failed start raises the stakes in “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” If the US is serious about ending the war, it needs to immediately change its tactics; pursue evidence-based policies informed by dynamics on the ground; and balance its pressure on all warring parties, especially the Houthis who are the most resistant to accepting ceasefires. A successful policy is one that strives for enduring peace in Yemen. That will come about when the US goes local, prioritizing Yemen’s national interests.
The new administration’s Middle East foreign policy centered around Yemen from the outset. It announced in early February the end of US support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition; a new US envoy to Yemen; and the removal of Ansarallah (commonly known as the Houthis) from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. These steps were meant to enhance the chances for a diplomatic solution; however, they do not reflect a careful reading of the fast-changing dynamics of the war. Rather, the steps prevented the US from influencing the Iran-supported Houthi militia. The US is gradually disengaging from the coalition while unintentionally offering incentives to the Houthis. That is how several Houthi leaders perceive the US steps ; emboldening them to expand their military action. Ultimately, the latest US decisions were an invitation to expand a war that recently entered its seventh year.
Only three days after Biden’s foreign policy speech, the Houthis resumed their largest military campaign against Marib. Marib’s strategic importance cannot be overestimated. It is the last remaining northern stronghold under government forces. It is also the largest congregation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) —two million Yemenis who escaped Houthi wrath. Given the high stakes for both sides, this is one of the fiercest battles since the beginning of the war. The Yemeni government forces, aided by local tribes, fought against this offensive, as did the Saudi-led coalition with a record rise in air missiles after they were almost on hold. These confrontations resulted in more agony for Yemenis: hundreds lost their lives on both sides, thousands of families were displaced, while many IDPs faced the prospect of double displacement.
The Biden administration’s decisions did not just embolden action in Marib. Taiz, another major city in the center of Yemen, witnessed armed clashes after a three-year pause in military confrontations. Local factors exist no doubt; but short-sighted US decisions have played a notable role in reigniting war in Taiz with devastating effects, including the loss of civilians and the recruitment of more Yemenis towards an endless war spiral.
To make matters worse, the latest military escalation has negatively impacted the pace of negotiations over an imminent environmental catastrophe —the Safer oil tanker off the coast of Hodeida. After a number of delays and lengthy negotiations with the Houthis, last November the UN was able to reach an agreement allowing maintenance units to enter the tanker and evaluate its condition. This was meant to take place earlier this month; however, buoyed by their perceived victories, the Houthis have postponed the matter once again.
The Houthis read shifting US policies in their favor. This reading did not negatively impact Yemen alone: it also influenced regional dynamics. The Houthis have intensified their drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia this past month. Of the 500+ attacks launched against Saudi Arabia since the start of the war, the Houthis have launched dozens since Biden became President. No city was spared, ranging from Jizan, Najran, Abha, Jeddah, to Riyadh. Most alarming are the recent attacks against oil refineries in the eastern cities of Ras Tanura and Riyadh. The Houthis claimed the attacks, though Saudi authorities state the Ras Tanura attack came from the sea, further pointing to Iran. If true, this assessment matches the UN report issued after the September 2019 attack on an Aramco oil installation in Abqaiq-Khurais. This further suggests the Yemen War is increasingly becoming one piece within a larger regional puzzle.
Paradoxically, recent US policies have derailed Washington’s diplomatic efforts and led to further war and stalemate in Yemen. The Biden administration lacks real levers against the Houthis. The Houthis do not consider the US a neutral actor; on the contrary; they view them as a foe, as the leader of a “US-Saudi” military campaign against them. As a non-state actor, the Houthis have no interest in ending the war as they base their progress on violently changing the status quo. Neither sanctions nor ending support to the Saudi-led coalition will break the Houthis’ resolve or end the war. Instead of sanctioning second-tier Houthi leaders, the US is best served if it reassesses its Yemen strategy. The Biden administration has to avoid the trap of diplomatic statements unaccompanied by helpful actions. UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has been doing just that since 2018 to no avail. Instead, the US may build its new strategy on two broad parameters.
Peace is impossible without first creating a conducive environment on the ground. This will not come along when the Houthis view recent US actions as further empowering them to defeat their adversaries. Safeguarding Marib, the last stronghold of the internationally recognized government, is an essential start. This will not only build conviction among the Houthis that a military solution is ineffective; leading them to negotiations, but it would also prevent a huge humanitarian crisis. A Houthi victory in Marib will inflate their proportionate power in Yemen’s internal dynamics, placing peace out of reach.
The second much-needed parameter is disentangling Yemen from the regional dossiers it got mired into. Both the Obama and the Trump administration enabled Saudi meddling in Yemen, while the Biden administration is now transferring that role to Iran by giving the Houthis free reign and linking Yemen to its negotiations with Iran. Despite the robust involvement of regional actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, adopting a local route will help alter Yemen’s geopolitics and bring a serious end to the war. Internationalizing the conflict prolongs it to no end. That is why repetitive ceasefire offers centering around regional actors are born dead. To secure a permanent end to the conflict, there needs to be a shift in direction. Starting “inside out” empowers local actors, who can then initiate settlements with regional actors, as opposed to initiating an “outside in” resolution that prioritizes regional actors at the expense of local voices.
A clear message needs to be sent to all parties about the US roadmap for peace in Yemen. However, prior to that, Washington needs to formulate such a plan. So far, Biden’s current Yemen policy has only intensified the war, with no end in sight. It is not a policy for peace.