The U.S. Is in a Thankless Spot When It Comes to Yemen’s War

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As a career diplomat deeply immersed in Arab affairs, Timothy Lenderking will know to be thankful for small mercies. He can take some comfort from the fact that his appointment as President Joe Biden’s envoy for Yemen did not elicit anything like the fierce opposition to the naming of Rob Malley as the administration’s point man on Iran

While Malley’s appointment was met with anger and anxiety from those who regard him as soft on Tehran — including Israel, some Gulf Arab monarchies and U.S. Republicans — there has been little hand-wringing over the choice of Lenderking to lead American efforts to end the war in Yemen. Even the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed the decision, despite the fact that its most powerful members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are unhappy with Biden’s swift repudiation of his predecessor’s policies on Yemen. 

The Saudis and Emiratis led the Arab coalition that began a campaign of bombardment in Yemen nearly six years ago, against the Iran-backed Ansar Allah militia, known colloquially as the Houthis, which had taken over the capital and most of the country’s north. Last week, Biden suspended U.S. military support for that campaign and put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He has also overturned Donald Trump’s eleventh-hour designation of Houthis as a terrorist group. The objective of these moves is ostensibly to create conditions for a negotiated resolution of the conflict.

But the upshot is that America’s staunchest Arab allies are now aggrieved, whereas the Houthis — who revel in the slogan “Death to America! Death to Israel! A curse upon the Jews!” — are unhindered. The militia have stepped up missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia, prompting the U.S. State Department to declare itself “deeply troubled.” Iran offered a conditional endorsement for the suspension of U.S. military assistance against the Houthis, provided it is not “a political maneuver.” 

It is unclear whether Lenderking was party to Biden’s decisions to drop the terrorism designation for the Houthis and to suspend military support for the Saudis and Emiratis, but it falls to him to deal with their fallout. 

Since those decisions leave Lenderking with no bargaining chips to offer the militia, he may have to rely on the efforts of his counterpart in the United Nations, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, to persuade the Iranians to restrain their Yemeni partners. Griffiths visited Tehran earlier this week, seeking support for a ceasefire in Yemen to allow urgent humanitarian aid and a resumption of the political process.

But Iran has little incentive to play ball. On the contrary, the war in Yemen serves Tehran’s purpose of keeping its Arab adversaries bogged down in a quagmire. Compared with its proxy militias in other parts of the Middle East, the Houthis are a low-cost, low-maintenance cat’s paw.

Despite the welcoming noises from the GCC, Lenderking shouldn’t expect much warmth from the Arabs either. The campaign in Yemen carries the personal imprimatur of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (he was defense minister when it began), and although it had gone badly — the Houthis control more territory now than they did six years ago — he would be loath to back down under U.S. pressure while the militias continue to launch attacks into the kingdom. And while the Emiratis have scaled back their presence in Yemen, they will not easily acquiesce to Houthi control of the country.

It will require a great deal of diplomatic skill to get the different parties to even agree to negotiate. The Yemen crisis is much more complicated now than in 2016, when the last substantive peace talks were held, in Kuwait. The Houthis are stronger and better armed, and their rivals within Yemen are divided. The country’s internationally recognized government, forced into exile by the militia’s advance six years ago and currently propped up by the Arab coalition, struggles with in-fighting. 

Neither the Houthis nor their enemies seem able to score a decisive victory, yet both sides have the means and motivation to keep fighting indefinitely.

That leaves Lenderking to raise humanitarian considerations, but the warring parties haven’t shown much sympathy for the millions of Yemenis caught in the middle of their conflict. The UN reckons more than 230,000 people have died, mostly from “indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure,” since the Arab coalition’s bombing campaign began. More than 80% of the population is dependent on foreign aid for survival. The reversal of the terrorist designation for the Houthis removes legal hurdles to getting aid into Yemen, but assistance can be distributed only when there’s a sustained cease-fire.

Still, if Biden’s envoy can achieve only that much, it would be no small mercy.     

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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