Ending the Yemeni Civil War Could Shift the Power Balance in the Middle East

By Rebecca Roth

Source: The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/09/world/middleeast/yemen-civil-war.html

The US is partially responsible for the duration of the civil war in Yemen. But that does not mean that America can suddenly withdraw and pretend that its objectives have been achieved. The civil war has destabilized the region and the country and is responsible for a large humanitarian crisis. The war is no longer being fought by only two sides. Rather, many factions—including some supported by Iran—are spread out throughout the country. President Biden and the Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, should end the war with a carefully planned peaceful settlement in order to ensure that Iran does not gain leverage over the United States. 

The Yemen Civil War began after the Arab Spring when President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took over power from Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi’s power grab was met by hostility from the “Houthis” (a group formally known as Ansar Allah). The Houthis are predominantly Shiite Mulsim, but they also have the support of many Sunnis who are unhappy with the Yemini government. The Houthis took control over territories in Northern Yemen (specifically, the Saada province and surrounding areas). Many Sunni countries in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, began an airstrike against the Houthis (and the Iranian proxies which supported them) in order to subdue the rebel group and put Mr. Hadi and his government back in control. These airstrikes used intelligence provided by the UK, US, and France. 

Ultimately, in August 2015, ground troops were deemed necessary to take back the land and the United States, under former President Obama, gave military aid to Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized Yemeni governments and forces. It has been over six years, at least a hundred thousand people are dead, and millions more are living in starvation. The conflict is not over, and to some it has, at least partially, become a proxy war between America and Iran. The US backing down could be considered a win for Iran at a time when the relationship between the US and Iran is extremely precarious. 

Since President Biden has entered office, he has announced that the US will halt any offensive support for Saudi Arabia or Yemen. His administration will also undo the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) label of the Houthi group (a label announced right before former President Trump left office.) While the Biden administration’s desire to achieve peace in the region is commendable, the war and the crisis will not be solved overnight. The two decisions made by the Biden administration are, at least partially, for show. Their primary effect is to demonstrate to the world that his foreign policy will differ from that of President Trump. 

While taking away the terrorist designation could have a positive impact on the humanitarian crisis, it could have been done privately at first in conjunction with an incentive to follow it. Namely, President Biden could have told the Houthi group that he would remove the designation on the condition that they stop civilian attacks. Doing so could have led to peace —even if only temporary. However since the announcement has been made, the Houthi rebels have restarted their attack on the Marib province, putting millions of civilians in harm’s way. Taking away the designation has only spurred continued violence by the Houthis on Yemeni civilians. Additionally, the prime reason given to remove the terrorist label is to ensure that aid would continue to be given to civilians under Houthi rule. But while it is important that the humanitarian crisis should end and that civilians in the area be helped, the aid that was going to the Houthi group has been severely mismanaged, with a large proportion of funds not reaching afflicted populations.. Therefore, removing the designation is not a purely strategic action —it is inherently a political statement. 

Another strategy that could have been followed, instead of making a statement with the hidden implication that Iran does have legitimate authority to operate in Yemen, could have been to privately relay to Saudi officials that America will make future arms sales to Saudi Arabia conditional on constructive peace negotiations.. Doing so would have allowed President Biden to take steps towards peace and would give him and his administration time to create a comprehensive plan to end the Yemeni Civil War. 

The implication that Iran has the preponderance of power in Yemen impacts not only the Yemeni Civil War but also the future of Iran and its nuclear weapons. It is public information that President Biden would like to reenter the Iran Nuclear Deal but is only willing to do so if Iran becomes compliant with the terms. In order to maintain a strong bargaining position, the Administration must ensure that it does not unintentionally signal to Tehran that the Iranians have the upper hand in any conflict. 

Taking these steps not only sends a message to Iran but would also demonstrate that President Biden intends to reassess the nature of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. Taking away military support is a sign that Biden’s administration may not be as friendly to Saudi Arabia as the Trump administration was. Saudi Arabia became a closer ally in the Middle East over the past four years and President Trump relied on that friendship to keep Iran in check. The Biden administration seems to be taking a different approach to the threat of Iran and, even more broadly, to the Middle East as a region.

Six years ago, people believed that swift action could end the war. But that is no longer the case. Rushing into a solution only has the potential to prolong the situation in Yemen and negatively affect other conflicts and issues in the Middle East. Therefore, instead of taking action that simply makes a big statement and hope for hasty change, President Biden and his administration should take the time to create a comprehensive plan that will solve or at least help all aspects of the Yemen War. So while I commend President Biden for his desire and steps to end the war, I urge caution and serious consideration of the bigger picture before any more action is taken.

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