Joe Biden's recent announcement to pull out of the Yemen war comes as no surprise. The Biden administration's earlier decision to review the recent US arms sale to Saudi Arabia—a last minute arms deal pushed by the Trump administration—along with the administration's commitment to review the designation of the Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) in the wake of the aggravated humanitarian crisis in Yemen caused by the war, had already given the hope that perhaps this new administration would correct its course with regard to the war in Yemen.
This, however, does not mean the war is over. If anything, the war is far from over and for many reasons. "We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales," said US President Joe Biden, announcing the US decision to pull out of the war. Does this mean the Saudis, the Emiratis and the Iranian-backed Houthis have come to an understanding to finally end this war? No.
The war wages on. And to end this, the Biden administration now has to play a diplomatic role to bring all the warring parties to the table to expedite peace talks and come to a resolution at the earliest. There is another catch: while announcing the US withdrawal from the Yemen War, Biden also added, "At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV 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." And the Saudis face direct threat from the Houthis, who on previous occasions have targeted Saudi strategic assets and locations. This means that while the US will no longer directly partake in the war by providing support to the Saudis, it will nonetheless be confronting the Houthis if they do not stop going after the Saudis, which will likely have a ripple effect on the war and the humanitarian crisis.
And the US operations will continue in Yemen to fight the terrorist elements operating within the country, namely the al-Qaeda and the ISIS. This time however, it is expected that the operations will not take a toll on civilian lives, as it did ever since the start of the war six years ago.
Hundreds and thousands of civilians have been killed in the Yemen war. "The war had already caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure", suggested the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in December 2020. US-made arms and ammunitions have been used to target civilian locations in Yemen. A report published by The New York Times suggests, "When Saudi F-15 warplanes took off from an air base in southern Saudi Arabia for a bombing run over Yemen, it was not just a plane and bombs that were American. American mechanics serviced the jet and carried out repairs on the ground. American technicians upgraded the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis were not allowed to touch. The pilot was likely to have been trained by the United States Air Force."
And a report by The Guardian has traced the origin of cluster munitions that had killed 14-year-old Raja Hamid Yahya al-Oud on March 23, 2018 in a coalition strike on a farm in Saada in north Yemen, to Milan, Tennessee, in the United States.
The human toll of the Yemen war has drawn criticism from all quarters, and the US cannot continue to have more Yemini civilian blood on its hands. While the Biden administration has taken the right decision in withdrawing from the Yemen war, it has also invited challenges from many fronts.
To ensure this two pronged approach to Yemen, the US will have to walk a tight rope. First of all, while helping the Saudis in defending their territorial integrity against the Houthis, determining what is "offensive" and what is "defensive" would be a tricky challenge. From the very beginning, the Yemen war has been seen by the Saudis as a defensive measure against rising Houthi powers in the region. And while there is debate both for and against this Saudi narrative, going forward, the US will have to be more careful about its actions to make sure that while helping its ally, the US does not again get embroiled in the Yemen war.
Secondly, the diplomatic engagement to fast track the peace talks will be a challenge. Iran and the Saudis are strong regional powers and foes. Both the countries and their allies are engaged in proxy wars in many areas, and their ideological differences are rooted in the fragmented history of the Middle East. Getting the Iranian-backed Houthis, the Saudis and the Emiratis to rise above their individuals interests to end this war would be difficult. The appointment of career diplomat Tim Lenderking as the US envoy to Yemen is a move in the right direction, but how successful he will be to get these regional powers to overcome their differences remains to be seen.
And there will be pressure on the US administration internally to resume arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis. Arms sales to the Saudis have increased significantly during the war. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi Arabia had been the "world's largest arms importer from 2015 to 2019, the first five years of the Yemen war. Its imports of major arms increased by 130 percent compared with the previous five-year period. Despite the wide-ranging concerns in the US and the United Kingdom about Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen, both Washington and London continued to export arms to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2019. A total of 73 percent of Saudi Arabia's arms imports came from the US, and 13 percent from the UK."
"In the five years before the war, US arms transfers to Saudi Arabia amounted to USD three billion; between 2015 and 2020, the US agreed to sell over USD 64.1 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, averaging USD 10.7 billion per year. Sales to other belligerents in the war, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also rose exponentially," added the same report.
The Yemen war has created a ready and increasingly expanding market for US arms, and the dealers have enjoyed the fruits of this. Now with the US taking a back foot in the Yemen war, which means limiting of arms sales to the Saudis and the Emiratis, among other restrictions, the arms dealers will have a tough time selling their lethal weapons. And they are likely to create pressure on the Biden administration to revisit the country's Yemen policy.
Stricken by deaths, destruction and famine, Yemen is on the verge of collapse. People are dying by the hour. And the US is one of the perpetrators of this crime against humanity. There will be pressure on the US to continue to be a part of this mayhem—especially from the powerful international arms sale rackets and of course from the other actors who are profiting from this. But the US must make sure that this ends before more lives are lost. Will the US administration be able to handle this pressure? Only time will tell.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.