Biden’s rushed US policy moves on Yemen could backfire, analysts say

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US President Joe Biden made his intentions clear before assuming the presidency that one of his top foreign policy priorities would be ending the war in Yemen.

Since entering the White House, Biden has taken a number of steps toward, what he and his top aides believe will unlock the stalled peace process between the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and the Iran-backed Houthis.

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Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, slapped a terrorist designation on the Houthis, in what was one of his administration’s final moves.

But Biden quickly rushed to revoke the designation while announcing an immediate end to US support for military operations in Yemen.

This move did not come as a surprise to analysts, experts and former White House officials, but Biden’s speed and priority to call out Washington’s Gulf allies, before condemning terrorist organizations, did.

Not only did Biden fail to seek any concessions from the Houthis, but his rushed move gave them an added sense of confidence, according to several Yemen experts who spoke to Al Arabiya English.

President Joe Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office of The White House on January 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (File photo: AFP)
President Joe Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office of The White House on January 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (File photo: AFP)

With the recently inaugurated US president preaching human rights values since he was on the campaign trail, he and the State Department have failed to mention the FSO Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

Stranded near the Red Sea port in Hodeidah since 2015, the Houthis have refused to allow members of the United Nations, or other international organizations to board the vessel. Estimates suggest that over 1 million barrels of crude oil could spill into the sea, and the UN has warned of “catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences.”

Meanwhile, analysts say the US administration's decision to revoke the terrorist designation of the Houthis has emboldened the group, which continues to launch bomb-laden rockets and missiles at Saudi Arabia.

Hours after Biden said he would reverse Trump’s designation of the Houthis, the group escalated an offensive to capture one of the Yemeni government’s last northern strongholds, Marib.

“Emboldened by Biden's decision, the Houthis escalated their offensive to capture Marib the following day after the designation was rescinded,” said Nadwa al-Dawsari, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI).

On Wednesday, the Houthis claimed a drone attack that targeted a civilian airplane in Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport.

The White House and the State Department condemned the incident. Asked if the attacks would push the US to reconsider its plans to revoke the Houthis' designation, State Department Spokesman Ned Price said it had “absolutely nothing to do with the reprehensible conduct of the Houthis.”

A State Department official, speaking off the record, told Al Arabiya English that the intent to remove the Houthis from the terror list was “due to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration” and its humanitarian repercussions.

Former US President Donald Trump's designation of Houthis as terrorists was revoked by President Joe Biden. (File photo: Reuters)
Former US President Donald Trump's designation of Houthis as terrorists was revoked by President Joe Biden. (File photo: Reuters)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday the humanitarian crisis was the reason for the decision.

Critics of Trump’s relationship with the Gulf

Former President Donald Trump was often criticized for his close relationship with Gulf leaders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Trump used his close ties to push through peace deals between multiple Arab and North African states and Israel. He often spoke about the need to end US participation in “endless wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan and others.

According to former senior White House officials, Trump also realized that the Middle East issues were not as simple to solve.
“Ties between Saudi Arabia and Yemen go back decades, and this is an issue that’s more than just politics. You can’t just come in and say you want the war to end without pressing the Houthis and without working with the Saudis,” one of the former officials told Al Arabiya English.

After Biden ended US support for the Arab Coalition’s operations in Yemen, and called out Saudi Arabia for human rights issues and halted arms sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, he then said Washington remained committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory.

“Lightly-worded” statements, as the former official put it, were then issued by Biden, and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken who criticized Houthi attacks against civilians in Saudi Arabia.

Blinken also held his first calls with his Gulf counterparts after these moves were announced, with White House officials suggesting that Washington was coordinating its moves ahead of time with its allies. “We are pursuing a policy of no surprises,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters last week.

Biden’s anxiousness to re-enter the JCPOA

Analysts and former US officials worry that Biden’s foreign policy toward the Middle East will be closer to former President Barack Obama’s than some predicted.

Although Biden has repeatedly said he would not move first to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), other reports suggest he is considering certain steps.

Reuters reported earlier this week that the US president’s team was looking at ways to ease economic sanctions on Iran, including the facilitation of a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Iran and its proxies will welcome Biden’s moves.

Houthi supporters shatter the US flag during a demonstration outside the US embassy against the decision to designate the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, in Sanaa, Yemen Jan. 18, 2021. (Reuters)
Houthi supporters shatter the US flag during a demonstration outside the US embassy against the decision to designate the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, in Sanaa, Yemen Jan. 18, 2021. (Reuters)

This was evident on Tuesday when Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper, had a front-page article titled: “Sanaa forces moving to capture Marib.”

Separate articles inside Tuesday’s edition cited sources in Yemen as hailing Biden’s decisions and saying the “window for a diplomatic solution” was opened once again.

The daily also reported that the capture of Marib would be a point of strength for the Houthis before sitting at the table to discuss solutions to the Yemen war.

Moving forward

One of Biden's actions, welcomed across the board with regards to the Middle East, was appointing a special envoy for Yemen. Timothy Lenderking is a well-respected veteran diplomat and enjoys amicable ties with several states, groups and leaders in the region, but his job will be challenging, and he will have a tall order to fill in Yemen.

Despite reports that there had been backdoor talks between US sides and the Houthis in recent months, the United States was not given any assurances that the Houthis would halt their near-daily attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been a critical economic and strategic ally for the US, and since 9/11, it has also been a vital partner in the war on terrorism.

If the Biden administration continues to alienate its friends in Riyadh, the view from Washington is that “they have plenty of other options and allies to go to,” a second former White House official told Al Arabiya English.

“This was evident when Saudi Foreign Minister [Prince Faisal] bin Farhan went to Moscow a few weeks ago. And the Saudis already enjoy a good relationship with China,” the former official, who was speaking off-record, said.

Lenderking will work in tandem with, and will support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, but history has shown that the US too often looks for quick fixes and solutions.

As al-Dawsari recommended in a recent article, Biden’s administration should “recognize its limitations and make decisions wisely” in order to achieve a lasting peace agreement between warring sides.

“It is not revoking the designation that was the problem, but how easily that was done,” she added. “The Biden administration should have at least tried to use it as a leverage to get concessions from the Houthis.”

“To Yemenis impacted by the Houthis, they perceived Biden’s decision as a green light for the Houthis to continue to kill Yemeni civilians and expand militarily,” al-Dawsari said.

By removing the terrorist designation from the Houthis so hastily, she said, and added that the Biden administration sent the wrong signal: “The Houthis interpreted that as a victory.”

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