Biden eased pressure on the Houthis one year ago; has it worked?
Despite being one of the 100 former US diplomats to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s move to designate the Houthis, Washington’s former ambassador to Yemen now says, “things have changed.”
One year ago today, the US removed Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis and group officials from terror blacklists shortly after President Joe Biden announced an end to support for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive operations” inside Yemen.
The Biden administration cited humanitarian concerns despite making it one of the president’s first foreign policy moves, which also included freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both part of the coalition fighting in Yemen.
Biden also declassified a report that alleged that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 operation that led to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry denied the allegations following the report’s publication.
There was an effort by the Biden administration to highlight its so-called focus on human rights. But a year later, Biden and his top officials appear to be reconsidering their rushed policy moves on Yemen that placed much of the blame on Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads.
Last month, Biden declared that he was reconsidering designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization following multiple attacks on the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi.
Analysts say that doing so may not have much impact as the first decision already emboldened the Houthis.
“Removing [the designation] once it had been put in place was a powerful signal to the Houthis that the new administration was leaning towards them and encouraged them to be intransigent,” Ali Shihabi told Al Arabiya English.
“Had it never been put in place, it would have made little difference; but removing it once it was in place was the huge mistake,” argued Shihabi, a political analyst with a focus on Saudi Arabia.
State Department officials say that no decision has been made and that the move is still being considered. Sources familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking say that specific sanctions on Houthi leaders could be announced in the coming weeks.
The Houthis have threatened to keep targeting the UAE so long as it backs groups in Yemen fighting against the militia.
The UAE is part of the coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Arab Coalition and pro-government groups have been making gains in Yemen, reclaiming provinces from under the control of the Houthis.
Washington has since approved millions of dollars of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a bid to help both countries defend themselves against attacks from the Houthis and other Iran-backed groups in the region.
Biden’s top diplomat for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, has also repeatedly said the Houthis were at fault for blocking any real efforts towards a political solution in Yemen.
He has also said that there is no military solution to the war, which has pitted the Houthis against the internationally recognized government.
The group escalated its offensive on the oil-rich province of Marib and increased its attacks on Saudi Arabia following Biden’s decision to remove the group from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list and revoking its Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) designation.
Houthi militants have ransacked the US Embassy in Sanaa and detained multiple US and UN employees. The local staff that worked for the US continue to be held more than four months after being detained.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration sanctioned several Houthi officials and have vowed to continue doing so for their role in the yearslong Yemen war.
The Biden administration has grown increasingly frustrated with the Houthis due to their lack of cooperation with efforts to reach a solution. This will be reflected in the moves expected to be made soon, sources familiar with the US administration’s thinking say.
Changing views on the Houthis
One year later, things on the ground have changed, even for those who initially opposed designating the Houthis.
“My view is that the FTO issue should be revisited,” former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Al Arabiya English.
Despite being one of the 100 former US diplomats to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s move to designate the Houthis, Feierstein now says, “things have changed.”
“The past year has demonstrated that the Houthis will not return to the negotiating table until they accept that there is no alternative to a political resolution,” he wrote in an article Tuesday titled ‘A peacemaker’s case for designating the Houthis.’
Citing Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government’s willingness to engage in a ceasefire, the former US diplomat wrote: “As a member of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance,’ uncontested Houthi control of Yemen would pose an enduring challenge not only to the well-being of the Yemeni people but also to vital US interests...”
Yet, he suggested crafting new sanctions and designations in a way that prevented unintended humanitarian consequences.
Such a move, as Shihabi argued, may not have a direct impact on the Houthi leadership, but it would send a message “that delegitimizes the Houthi movement as a participant in Yemen’s political future.”
For her part, Nadwa al-Dawsari said the FTO designation has little value other than delegitimizing the Houthis as an actor in the country.
“Nothing short of a substantial military campaign that is consistent and coordinated to weaken the Houthis would help bring Yemen closer to peace,” she told Al Arabiya English, arguing that re-designating the group could have a “devastating impact” on ordinary Yemenis.
“Houthis are not interested in negotiations or compromise, and they made that very clear through their statements and actions,” said al-Dawsari, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Asked what the Biden administration could do differently in Yemen, she said sanctions against Houthi leaders and cracking down on their “money-making machines” in the region. “It should also step up operations in the Red Sea to prevent the smuggling of weapons to the Houthis.”
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