Nothing in recent memory could have possibly done more damage to America’s relations with the Yemeni people and to its image in the region than Washington’s support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The conflict produced the worst manmade catastrophe — one that never had to happen. As US President Joe Biden embarks on that treacherous mission to end his country’s involvement and, consequently, end the war itself, the extent to which regional crises are not just difficult to resolve, but intertwined, will become his most formidable adversary. But as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said a long time ago, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
First, let us understand how we got here why Yemenis have become so very disappointed with and feel betrayed by the United States. Understanding that is critical to any future US efforts vis-à-vis Yemen.
Cautiously Optimistic: The Biden Administration’s Options in Yemen
When in March 2015 the Saudi regime announced, from Washington, the commencement of the military intervention in Yemen, the Obama administration had already given its green light to the regime presided over by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In fact, President Barack Obama went ahead to provide the Saudis with weapons and logistics support, including target-selection advisers and refueling of coalition fighter jets on their bombing raids. Obama’s decision effectively made the US a direct member of the Saudi-led coalition in both name and in fact, waging an undeclared war on a nation that never fired a single bullet against the United States.
It’s Going to Be Quick
It was going to be quick: a two-week expedition and it’s done, with minimum casualties — or so they thought. Granted, we can safely speculate that, despite Saudi Arabia’s well-known military incompetence, seen during the First Gulf War, and its total disregard for human life, Obama still could not have guessed how callous and, therefore, catastrophic the Saudi campaign would become. We can also grant that no one in Obama’s administration knew that Yemenis are not a people who can be subdued in two weeks or two years or even, as US ally Britain ultimately learned, in 128 years.
No one, it seems, told Obama how crazy the idea was to intervene in a country dubbed the graveyard of foreign invaders nor, it seems, reminded Obama of previous US estimates of quick wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how those turned out to be. Obama was a man in a hurry, and people in a hurry act fast. Consultations and critical thinking take time.
But why did Obama make this horrible decision that his successor, Joe Biden, is now trying hard to put right? Obama, in 2015, nearing the end of his presidency, was single-mindedly focused on leaving behind a glorious legacy of having achieved a breakthrough with Iran by signing the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was going to be a crowning achievement of his foreign policy. It was also a deal that Washington’s regional ally, Saudi Arabia, together with Israel and the UAE, were vehemently opposed to, and still oppose.
Obama’s decision to support Saudi war efforts was the appeasement gift that he gave the Saudis to quieten their protests in return for signing the JCPOA. For Yemen, the ink that Obama used to sign the JCPOA agreement was made from the blood of its people. Yemenis have been made to sacrifice their lives and livelihoods on the altar of the Iran nuclear deal and the regional and international political expediency and horse-trading that went with it. They have proven to be the most expendable people, both for their own tyrants and their regional and international counterparts.
How Hillary Clinton, had she succeeded Obama, would have dealt with evidence of Saudi-led callousness, or whether she would have taken the decision to end the support for the coalition that Biden announced last week, is useless speculation after the fact. She was not elected. Instead, we had to contend with a disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, whose first order of regional business was to sign a $110-billion arms deal with Riyadh, progressively building to $380 billion, and continue to support and arm to the teeth the Saudi war on Yemen.
You Break It, You Own It
After Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, do we still need proof that military interventions, no matter how well-intended the protagonists claim them to be, do not solve but worsen crises? We should be excused for being scared when we hear President Biden promising to spread democracy worldwide, that “America is back.” We saw what happened when democracy became the calling card that substituted the weapons of mass destruction. Biden would be well advised to keep those good intentions on the back burner for the time being and instead focus on solving the destructive consequences of earlier good intentions. As history has repeatedly shown, the road to hell is indeed paved with them.
This will probably go down as Biden’s era. He better make it work. His first days in office have been loud and clear. And the sounds were, with some exceptions, mostly good. After earlier skepticism, this author is now becoming cautiously optimistic that Biden is determined to move in the right direction. At his age and time in his career, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing the right thing for America — and eventually, hopefully, become convinced to leave Yemen alone to try to do the right thing on its own. Going forward, the best help the Biden administration can and must provide is not to do too much. Less is definitely more. But for now, the US must be held firmly accountable, applying the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
The United States must review its priorities. This brings us to Biden’s recent decision to stop arms supplies to the Saudi intervention in Yemen and revoking the Trump administration’s labeling of Ansar Allah (as the Houthis are officially known) as a terrorist organization. Biden’s administration understands that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision was not aimed at Ansar Allah but was, in fact, one of the last minute mischievous moves that the Trump administration left behind to entrap Biden and tie his hands in a fait accompli. This was a trap that Biden is clearly not willing to fall into. Good for Biden. Good for Yemen. Good for peace.
Away from Trump’s and Pompeo’s political mischief that has impressed only the gullible, Biden’s decision to suspend operational support and intelligence sharing, despite being symbolic in immediate military terms, is nevertheless very serious. Although the Saudi regime — the world’s leading arms importer accounting for 12% of the world’s arms trade — is able to continue the war from its large stockpiles (the UAE’s F35 fighter planes were not intended for delivery until 2027), Biden’s decision strongly indicates a very important change of priorities in the region.
Biden doesn’t view Iran as the bogeyman used by the Trump administration as an excuse to terminate the JCPOA while continuing arms sales and saber-rattling that created one of the most dangerous periods of continuous regional instability. For the Biden administration, that era has ended. It is now the era of diplomacy and finding solutions to problems, without kicking down doors. But let’s not get carried away with euphoria — it won’t be easy. Biden has the experience and resources to understand the challenges. That is why he is offering assurances.
But even as Biden is moving toward the realignment of US priorities, with the aim of easing regional tensions, he must also be wary of Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves in the Persian Gulf. When it comes to Biden’s policies, Israel sees a window of opportunity to muscle in, hoping to replace what Netanyahu predicts to be America’s waning regional influence. Netanyahu is regionally encouraged in this mischief-making. Israel and its regional allies on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf are no friends of the JCPOA, which is a lynchpin in the Biden administration realignment. To succeed with the JCPOA partners, Biden will eventually have to confront all of Washington’s regional allies.
It will be dangerous for Biden to ignore the threats. Equally dangerous will be any temptation to use Israeli mischief as leverage against Iran. Worse has been tried by the Trump administration; it didn’t work. The who-will-blink-first gambit between Tehran and Washington must stop. Perhaps, instead, walking the walk simultaneously could symbolize that unity of purpose that has been missing for four long and traumatic years. With that unity of purpose, the United States and Iran can also work toward finding a solution to the war in Yemen and stopping the misery of a nation that has paid a heavy price for the JCPOA. America and Iran owe it to the Yemenis. Biden has already made the opening moves, both by stopping the arms supplies and by assuring Riyadh that Washington has their back if Yemenis attack.
Yemenis must welcome this Biden assurance. It is not just offered as protection for Saudi Arabia, but useful for Yemen because it is a positive step towards peace. Yemen never had the intention or a plan to attack Saudi Arabia. But it was Saudi Arabia and UAE that sent the first missiles into Yemen’s capital city on that infamous night in March 2015. The coalition continued the air strikes relentlessly, despite mounting evidence of high civilian casualties. Yemeni retaliation became necessary to make the coalition slow down its attack — to try to make the pain mutual. The strategy largely worked.
If Biden now wants to assure the Saudis and simultaneously ensure that they suspend the airstrikes, Yemenis must welcome that. It is up to Riyadh and Washington to determine how that protection would look. In any event, American protection for the Saudis is not new. But Yemen must insist that any future resumption of arms supplies to Saudi Arabia or the UAE must be accompanied by US assurances that the weapons will not be used against Yemen, with a reliable verification mechanism in place. For now, Yemenis must focus their energy on securing peace, taking advantage of the opportunity Biden’s policy shift offers.
President Biden has made his decision. It is a decision Yemenis have been demanding for a long time. Now it is up to the others involved in this horrendous war to make theirs. This war could not be possible without foreign actors, many of whom are sitting around the JCPOA table, supplying weapons to the regional and domestic parties to this war. The Biden administration should not stop at freezing US arms supplies but should pressure its NATO allies, especially Britain and France, to stop arms sales. Washington should also pressure regional actors to stop their funding and arms supplies to the various domestic forces. This will be an uphill battle, but one that Yemen needs to win.
Before this war, a common estimate of the number of weapons among the Yemeni population was 50 million — a 2:1 ratio. That figure was more myth than reality. Today, after almost six years of conflict, it will be safe to assume that that figure is no longer mythical and may indeed have increased at the hands of militia groups, whose exact numbers or identities no one knows for sure. All these militias were created, funded and armed by regional actors, who still continue to do so today. The question of how to withdraw these weapons and end the anarchy of lawless militias operating in Yemen will continue to haunt the country for many years to come. The war that was ostensibly intended to restore a legitimate state in Yemen and improve the lives of its people has in reality become a war that has destroyed even a semblance of a state and instead created a humanitarian catastrophe for generations to come.
Ironically, Ansar Allah, whose defeat was the stated objective of the military intervention, has not only gained greater public support inside and outside Yemen, but has emerged as the strongest and most organized group in the country without which no solution is possible. Like Iran, which has emerged as a regional power despite, or perhaps because, of 40 years of political, economic and even military aggression led by the United States, Ansar Allah has found a raison d’être from the war waged against it. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the Saudi-led military intervention has given Ansar Allah a public relevance and strength it never dreamt of having. This is its war dividend. The question is, how much better can the peace dividend be?
Regardless of any dreams of governing Yemen that some within Ansar Allah may or may not have, the leadership has demonstrated itself to be pragmatic enough to acknowledge the limits of any ambitions of forming a central government in a nation as diverse as Yemen. Centralization has failed several times in the past, and it will fail again. A federation of several states (six are currently proposed) has been the major focus of Yemenis’ attention in seeking the creation of a federal state. Strong opposition to the proposed six-state federation might necessitate accepting a union between southern and northern states under a federal or even a confederal system, which will prevent a total collapse of the current union resulting in continuous wars. Yemenis have painfully lived through that before.
When the war finally comes to an end, finding a working formula acceptable to everyone will be a major challenge. Negotiations leading to successful agreements, by definition, are those that give something — but not everything — to everyone. The alternative to that formula is war. There can be no maximalist or zero-sum solutions that can bring enduring peace to Yemen. The peace dividend for all parties must be found within that formula, led by Yemeni negotiators willing to put everything on the table with no preconditions except ending the war and bringing peace, stability and prosperity to Yemen.
Contrary to what the group actually believes, nothing can be more burdensome and exert more pressure on Ansar Allah and the other warring factions than a reopening of Yemen’s entry points, especially airports and seaports. People returning to the country seeking opportunities, encouraged to start rebuilding their lives, is a strong fait accompli, requiring those in power to measure up to the challenge. Despite current difficulties, Yemenis have the spirit and mindset to return immediately if routes are opened. It is relatively easy to rule a country at war and under a blockade through oppression. It becomes much harder when the world is paying close attention to the evolution of peace as the nation is rebuilding.
Like any group or political party, there are various political viewpoints within Ansar Allah, ranging from ideologically unyielding to politically pragmatic. The challenge is to formulate an approach that can navigate a middle ground within the group as a whole. Attempts to use these divergent political viewpoints as fissures to be exploited will be dangerous for the entire effort and delay or, worse, torpedo the peace process. Spoilers are created by such an approach. We have come to this point, partly because of those who think they can cleverly do exactly that.
Instead of cleverness, what is needed in these times is wisdom, the ability to work patiently across all divides and a commitment to Yemen as a whole and not to partisan politics or gains. Anger and protests are a necessary tool to bring focus to the problem. Yemenis must continue to agitate and make good trouble for the powers at play, to make them pay attention to the problem. However, solving the problem requires cool heads and a different focus.
As efforts to bring an end to the war are planned, identifying the moving parts and the various components of the war are a must. As much as Ansar Allah’s strength is derived from the Saudi intervention, it also benefits to a large extent from the disarray among its adversaries, particularly the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which itself is divided between his supporters and those of his opponents at the Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose agenda is to secede from the union. Refusing to identify themselves as Yemenis, they have nevertheless failed to come up with an alternative identity. So they call themselves “southerners” — a geographical location rather than a national identity.
Apart from fighting Ansar Allah, the divided Hadi government and the STC are fighting against each other for turf in the south as Ansar Allah quietly watches from the sidelines, probably waiting to pick up the pieces. The coalition, now comprising only of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is expressively committed to restoring legitimacy (meaning Hadi’s government) and supporting opposing parties in the battles between Hadi’s government (supported by Saudi Arabia) and the STC (supported by the UAE). Effectively, the Saudi-UAE coalition, despite all claims of unity, is in fact locked in a proxy war for influence in south Yemen.
And if all that is not bizarre enough, there is the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brothers, declared as a terrorist organization by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Despite the designation, the party is a member of the Hadi government, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are committed to restoring to power after defeating Ansar Allah.
However, domestic factions will not decide the peace in Yemen. They can, to a certain extent, for a certain period, act as spoilers of the peace process, but that’s as far as they can go if their sponsors and external actors decide to end the war. And most of those who can, in fact, those who must decide are sitting around the JCPOA table. That’s where the center of power is for the war in Yemen. Should those trying to move ahead with the JCPOA fail to bring peace to Yemen as a prerequisite of the implementation of the nuclear deal, there are enough possibilities to wreck the JCPOA itself, irreparably. It should be remembered that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not friends of the JCPOA. The three are also involved in the war in Yemen. One doesn’t need to be a genius to see how the lines crisscross.
If Yemen gets help to find postwar peace and stability and is then left alone, the Biden administration and others in the region will find it a better partner to engage with, going forward. Yemen must move on from the era of leadership that continuously seeks external support and interference to compensate for its incompetence, corruption and failures. The country needs young energetic leaders who are invested in its future prosperity. A nation of 30 million with tremendous resources does not need charity. Instead, Yemenis must seek partnerships. Regional players who wasted billions seeking unfair geopolitical advantages through destructive war could have achieved greater benefits through partnerships with Yemen — for much less.
Yemen’s hope is in its youth, despite, or perhaps because of a painful but educational 6-year war. There is still time to develop that mindset for the future. In as far as regional neighbors (and beyond) are concerned, Yemenis are a forgiving people. Yet lest future generations risk repeating it, we must never allow this Nakba to be forgotten. Yemen can and must forgive, and then move on.
Nothing is more sustainable than the need to get things done, no matter how misguided it might be at times. Generosity of the heart is whimsical. It was not generosity that induced President Obama to support Mohammed bin Salman’s war on Yemen. It was political expediency born from a misguided notion of need. Today, it is not the generosity of President Biden’s heart that will stop the war in Yemen but political expediency born from a real need. Both are related to the JCPOA.
In 2015, for Barack Obama, the horrendous war in Yemen was a vehicle toward the Iran nuclear deal. For Obama’s former right hand, now President Biden, in 2021, there can be no successful implementation of the JCPOA without ending that horrendous war. Call it irony, or call it divine intervention to set the record straight. But now, let’s work together to win the peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.