Yemen is More Complicated Than Biden Thinks

The two main goals of the President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy are clear enough: resuming nuclear diplomacy with Iran and ending the war in Yemen. But as Washington begins to engage with Yemen seriously, after four years of sustained disinterest under President Donald Trump, it is learning that the realities of that conflict are very different than many Americans imagined — and that the administration’s objectives will be hard to achieve.

 During the Trump presidency, Yemen was primarily viewed as Saudi Arabia’s problem. The war was cast as the consequence of Saudi aggression — specifically, Riyadh’s leadership of the Arab alliance against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. As a result, it was assumed that ending the fighting was just a matter of compelling the Saudis to get out of Yemen.

This view served a political purpose: Democrats, in particular, used Yemen as a stick to beat Trump for his see-no-evil defense of Saudi Arabia, and especially its day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In Congress, there was a bipartisan effort to punish Riyadh for the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen. But Trump’s veto power frustrated demands for the withdrawal of American support for the war in Yemen and ending U.S. arms sales to the Saudis.

Now that they are in power and Biden is actively seeking solutions, the Democrats are having to reassess their previous analysis of the problem. Biden’s special envoy on Yemen, the veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking, a highly respected veteran U.S. diplomat, is confronting the stark reality that ending the war isn’t about convincing the Saudis to go — they’ve wanted to, for several years.

The main challenge is convincing the Houthis to allow the Saudis to leave on reasonable terms.

Having expended enormous resources in Yemen, Riyadh will want to leave behind some sort of power-sharing agreement between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudis also need guarantees that the Houthis will cease cross-border raids and rocket attacks

But the Houthis, a Shiite militia that overthrew the Hadi government in 2015, have never shown any serious interest in peace. Since the war has gone fairly well for them, they have little incentive to stop fighting. And their Iranian patrons are certain to press them to keep the Saudis bogged down. The conflict in Yemen has given Tehran plausible deniability while repeatedly striking at its main regional rival in its exposed underbelly.

In theory, it shouldn’t be that difficult to incentivize the Houthis to come to terms. A political agreement would have to recognize and institutionalize the power they have accumulated over the past five years.

However, there are a number of serious challenges. Since the war started, no one has been able to ascertain what the Houthi bottom line is, much less what kind of deal they might accept. Not only are they fanatical in the extreme —their rallying cry is “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! A curse upon the Jews! Victory for Islam!” — they are also internally divided. Their representatives at previous peace talks apparently did not represent the views and commitments of commanders on the ground.

Another problem is Hadi, who has his own history of recalcitrance. He is fearful of losing authority and exclusive international recognition, but unable to mount a serious military counterattack. Persuading the president to come to terms will be only somewhat less difficult that corralling the Houthis.

And then there are the Iranians, who seem perfectly happy to keep supplying the Houthis with arms while pronouncing piously about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The Biden administration has begun with an interesting mix of carrots and sticks, including the resumption of humanitarian assistance to areas controlled by the Houthis. It reversed Donald Trump’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization in order to facilitate diplomatic contacts with Lenderking. Biden also ended U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition. 

But more recently, the Treasury Department imposed targeted sanctions on two senior Houthi leaders. And Lenderking has begin to openly question the rebels’ desire for peace.

American patience is being tested by a Houthi offensive against Marib, the government-held city in a hydrocarbon-rich region around 100 miles east of the capital Sanaa. The rebels have rejected U.S. calls for a cease-fire, and seem oblivious to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni refugees who live in tent cities in and around the city.

Ironically, it is the Saudis and their allies who may represent the best hope of preventing the Houthis from unleashing what the United Nations fears will be a fresh a humanitarian catastrophe in Marib.

In Yemen, as the Biden administration is discovering, there are no good guys — or, as yet, good options.

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

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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