Joe Biden’s Yemen Diplomacy Risks All-Out War

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for a vote on a war powers resolution that would block US support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, the Biden administration immediately pushed back. The resolution, the White House warned, would upset diplomatic efforts and bring about the war it was trying to end.

“The Administration strongly opposes the Yemen War Powers Resolution on a number of grounds, but the bottom line is that this resolution is unnecessary and would greatly complicate the intense and ongoing diplomacy to truly bring an end to the conflict,” read the White House talking points. circulated privately. “In 2019, diplomacy was absent and the war was raging. That is not the case now. Thanks to our diplomacy which remains ongoing and delicate, the violence over nearly nine months has effectively stopped.”

The White House’s claims that its diplomacy is working, however, are undermined by its own political moves and the reality on the ground. President Joe Biden’s envoy for the conflict has consistently sided with the Saudi coalition against the Houthi movement that controls much of the country. And although a ceasefire during the spring and summer provided a respite in civilian casualties due to bombings, the ongoing Saudi blockade and economic warfare against Yemenis perpetuates the humanitarian crisis in the country – which the United Nations has deemed the worst in the world.

Without taking an even-handed approach to the conflict in search of a political solution and the mitigation of the humanitarian crisis, the Biden administration’s machinations can hardly be considered good-faith efforts at diplomacy, critics of US policy in the conflict said.

“There’s been no diplomatic progress whatsoever,” Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen until 2015, told The Intercept. “There has been no political process, no negotiations, or even a prospect of them. So an all-out war can resume at any time.”

“There’s been no diplomatic progress whatsoever. There’s been no political process, no negotiations, or even a prospect of them.”

The divisions in Yemen — with the Saudi coalition controlling southern oil fields and ports, and the Houthi-led government controlling territory in the north that houses some 80 percent of the country’s 30 million residents — are only growing more entrenched. Instead of asking for concessions from its allies in the Saudi coalition, the administration’s one-sidedness has contributed to the breakdown of diplomacy.

Although violence has not returned to earlier levels since the expiration of the ceasefire in October, fighting continues along some of the war’s front lines. The Houthis have warned that their restraint won’t last long amid the current impasse and continued blockade of fuel imports; if the embargo is not eased, they said, they will reciprocally blockade a nearby waterway crucial to the global oil markets. The situation is only growing more explosive.

“There’s been a lull in the fighting, but since there was no concerted effort to move the political process forward, the lull is a temporary one and all sides are preparing for the worst,” said Benomar. “The situation is extremely fragile because Yemen has fragmented now and you have different areas of Yemen under the control of different warlords.”

Truce

The largely diplomatic push cited by the White House in opposing the Sanders war powers resolution — a so-far ineffective push that gives Saudi Arabia room to maneuver — follows a pattern it has held since early in the administration, when Biden pledged to work toward ending “offensive operations” to the Yemen war, and Saudi Arabia engaged in its most aggressive bombing campaign under the rubric of “defensive operations.”

Under such conditions, progress towards a treaty has remained elusive. While the Houthi movement has steadily gained territory — and political support in the country — the Saudi-backed government and other allied militia groups maintained control of oil-rich areas and ports in the south, enabling the punishing blockade. Biden balked at calls to pressure Saudi into easing the blockade when it sparked the worst fuel crisis in Yemeni history. Instead, when administration officials have commented, they have avoided naming the Saudis, calling instead on “all parties” to allow unhindered import of fuel.

As the blockade continued and the fuel crisis worsened, the Houthis attacked the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in late January 2022 in two separate attacks, with one reaching a US military base. In March, the Houthis targeted a storage site belonging to the Saudi national oil company, marking the second boldest attack against Saudi oil facilities. Instead of convincing the Saudis to de-escalate, the Biden administration pledged to defend Riyadh and Abu Dhabi against what they called the “terrorist” attacks.

Yet the threat to the global oil supply was becoming clear, a risk the White House was uninterested in running amid both a midterm election and a war between Russia and Ukraine. A week after the attack on Saudi’s oil infrastructure, the United Nations, backed by the US, managed to have all parties agree on a truce that would allow for talks on a settlement to the years-long conflict. “The Saudis accepted the truce after belatedly realizing that they were losing in an expensive quagmire,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA analyst and Brookings Institution senior fellow, in an email. “Biden’s team helped get them to that point along with a lot of help from the UN and Oman.”

The two-month truce allowed for a halt to all Saudi airstrikes and ground fighting and an ease on fuel imports to northern Yemen, in return for a halt to Houthi missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia.

No Renewal

The ceasefire largely held up and kept getting renewed until October 2, when the Houthi government refused to renew it again.

The Houthi government laid blame with Riyadh and the US for avoiding the most important issue to the Houthi-led coalition: monthly salary payments of the state employees. Since 2016, the Saudi-backed government relocated the Central Bank of Yemen to the territory it controls, accusing the Houthi government of diverting the bank’s funds to the war effort, a charge international observers and aid groups found baseless. The Saudi-backed government promised to keep the bank’s policy of paying all public servants, estimated at 1 million employees who support around 10 million others, but it broke its word, denying millions of Yemenis their only source of income.

The Houthi-led coalition put the salary payment issue as a condition to renew the deal, but the Saudis agreed only on paying workers in the health and educational sectors. The Houthis maintained that the revenues from oil exports in areas under the Saudi-backed government, which would account for nearly 70 percent of Yemen’s budget, should be allocated for the salary of all public servants. No Biden-led diplomacy — intense, delicate, ongoing, or otherwise — could persuade the Saudis to stop diverting Yemeni public-servant money back to Riyadh.

Little progress has been made on the issue of paying public servants. The UN Security Council, Britain, the European Union, and the US called the Houthi government’s demand to pay all public servants “unrealistic” and “maximalist.” During a congressional hearing in December, Biden’s Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking blamed the Houthi government for the current impasse, slamming “the last-minute Houthi demand that the Yemeni government divert its limited oil export revenues to pay the salaries of active Houthi combatants.”

What the US deemed unrealistic has in fact been a demand of Democrats on Capitol Hill. What Sanaa demanded as a condition to renew the deal was not impossible or even unrealistic. A group of 16 senators — along with many aid groups — called on Biden in May 2021 to end the Saudi blockade. While the Biden administration angled to keep the blockade as leverage in negotiations, the senators said the embargo “must end today and be decoupled from ongoing negotiations.”

For critics, the Biden administration’s stance — considering the payments to Yemeni public servants too great a cost for establishing a new ceasefire — isn’t a serious approach to ending the war.

“These demands benefit ordinary Yemeni workers, not the Sana’a government itself,” said Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute, referring to the Houthi government in the capital of Sana’ a. “What’s ‘unrealistic’ and even cruel, however, is to continue denying millions of public servants their salaries for multiple years and to derail ceasefire negotiations because of a humanitarian, not a political or military, demand.”

Diplomacy to Nowhere

The relative calm in fighting and a halt to bombing witnessed since April has been rare. Its impact on the most vulnerable, however, has been small. Much of the Yemeni suffering has been caused by the blockade and other economic warfare tactics, not the bullets and bombs.

The status quo leaves the Houthis little incentive to maintain a truce that delivers misery to the population it governs without any serious concessions around the blockade or payments to public-service employee payments. In return, the Houthi government has offered to stop its bombing of Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. Saudi, emboldened by White House support, agreed on only easing restrictions on fuel imports.

Late last month, Omani negotiators were back in northern Yemen, urging the Houthis to sit down with the Saudis to discuss both issues. Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the Houthi movement’s leader and the one calling the shots, rejected the offer as another Saudi bid to evade addressing the economic crisis first, which he and his aides stressed should be decoupled from any other issues being negotiated. The Houthi message was simple, according to a source briefed on the talks: Pay the salaries of all public servants, lift the blockade on the northern port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport, and then the parties can sit together to negotiate other terms.

The Saudis and the Emirates, however, seem unlikely to budge. So far, they have only granted concessions in the face of violence directed at Abu Dhabi and at Saudi oil fields, not through Biden-led negotiations.

That may be the dynamic at the heart of the White House’s opposition to the Sanders war powers resolution: Without US support for its warplanes, the Saudis would be effectively grounded, perhaps emboldening the Houthis, who are poised to relaunch strikes and send global oil markets spinning to win an end to the blockade. So far, Houthi attacks intended as warnings have dissuaded tanker captains from offloading millions of barrels of crude oil that would have otherwise benefited the Saudi-backed government.

Facing the reality of the Houthis escalating their attacks, the Biden administration could dig in and refuse to meet reasonable Houthi demands while fending off congressional opposition to the war. Or the White House could pressure the Saudis into a genuine end to the war. In fighting the Sanders resolution, the White House has chosen to dig in. The Biden administration diplomacy is “ongoing,” but it’s not clear it’s going anywhere — making a resurgence of violence now seems inevitable.

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