Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 326, 11 February 2021

Yemen: Joe Biden’s new strategy should aim at ending the disastrous war
Rashmi B R

In the news
On 8 February, the Houthi rebels launched an offensive on Ma’rib, a city in the northern part of Yemen, and one of the few strongholds of the government. The attacks were launched from three fronts and continued despite strong resistance from the government forces, allied tribesmen, and the air cover provided by the Arab coalition. The clash resulted in the death of at least 20 soldiers and few Houthi fighters.

On 4 February, President Biden announced that the US is “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.” On 5 February, the US State Department informed the Congress that it will reverse the Trump administration’s decision to declare Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. 

On 7 February, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths began his two-day visit to Iran to meet Iranian foreign minister and officials, to discuss the conflict in Yemen.

Issues at large
First, the shift in the US policy under Biden. The Trump administration, though not directly involved in the war, explicitly extended its support to the Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition, primarily through increased arms sales, circumventing the opposition the US Congress. It also did not condemn Saudi Arabia for committing human rights violations and war offences in Yemen and in other parts of the region. Continuing the policy against Iran and its proxies, the Trump administration had listed the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Under Joe Biden, there is a shift in the US policy towards Yemen. In his address at the State Department, he remarked that the war in Yemen must end. In this regard, he appointed Timothy Lenderking, a veteran diplomat, to cooperate with the UN and “all the parties to the conflict to push for a diplomatic resolution.” Nevertheless, the State Department condemned and called upon the rebels to halt the offensive and violence that is impacting civilians in Yemen.

Second, the long-drawn war in Yemen and the domestic political crisis. The rebels and the government forces are in a long-drawn conflict and violent clashes continue, as the Houthis remain strong despite stiff resistance from the Arab coalition. The government, despite the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, lacks decisive power enough to control the rebellion.

Third, the humanitarian crisis. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, the relentless fighting in Yemen has inflicted severe damage, killing more than 110,000 people of which more than 12,500 are civilians. According to the UN, 80 per cent of the population in the country depend on assistance for survival. It also issued strong warnings of an impending famine that will push Yemen into a crisis, from where revival would be nearly impossible.

In perspective
First, the renewed efforts in Yemen to end the war. The government representatives and the Houthis participated in the UN-sponsored peace talks in December 2018. The talks failed and any further negotiations were not held despite repeated efforts from the UN. Biden’s announcement to end support to Saudi Arabia and Martin Griffiths’ visit to Iran, is now seen as the first step towards reviving the efforts to end the conflict. Griffiths stated that his priorities include an agreement between the parties on a “nationwide ceasefire, urgent humanitarian measures and the resumption of the political process.”

Second, the measures Biden ought to take. The assurance on the reversal of Trump’s policy on Yemen has revived hopes on beginning the peace process. By appointing an envoy and announcing a review of assistance to Saudi Arabia, Biden has provided space for diplomacy. However, though his address to the State Department calls for ending the war, it does not provide a solution. The questions of how and what kind of assistance to Saudi Arabia, the US plans to end, must be answered through definitive policies.

Third, the question of responsibility. The war will not end unless the Houthis and the government; the Arab coalition and Iran arrive at a consensus on the issue. The regional countries and other western powers that indirectly support the primary parties to the conflict must consider the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.

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