Biden's Yemen policy risks backfiring

The US President has sought to end the war there but the Houthis and their backers need to want peace

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It is still early days for the Biden administration. But even as it remains focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent economic crisis within its borders, it seems anxious to leave a mark on the world stage that would help set itself apart from the previous Trump administration. This has proved illusory so far. And in one theatre of conflict – Yemen – the Biden team's departure from Washington's policy over the past four years has proved puzzling and perhaps even risky.

That President Joe Biden has not secured a notable foreign policy win may be a sign of the times we live in. It could also be a testament to Donald Trump’s largely positive foreign policy legacy, particularly in the Middle East.

Mending relations with Washington's traditional allies in Europe and fellow Nato member states, frayed during the Trump years, is the one proverbial low-hanging fruit the administration can pluck. This explains Secretary of State Antony Blinken's efforts to reach out to the rest of the West. But there are very few other places in the world where a new administration can create an impact right away these days.

China is a rising power. Russia continues to be tough to deal with, although the Biden administration did extend the New Start arms reduction treaty with Moscow. The Venezuelan regime has proved stubborn despite political and economic turmoil there. North Korea's weapons programme is much too complicated to tackle straight away. On the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Biden team has found that American interests are better served by building on Mr Trump's achievements, which include the signing of the Abraham Accords.

It has decided to review the Trump administration's plan to withdraw troops from war-torn Afghanistan. But the Taliban's threat of retaliation and open-ended war against American forces could create a new crisis for Washington.

On Iran, the administration has backed itself into a corner. It initially created an expectation around the proposed return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Mr Trump had withdrawn the US from in 2018, before being struck by harsh realities involving Tehran’s mostly destabilising foreign policy. Mr Biden has not blinked yet, but in its bid to make Washington cave, the Iranian regime continues to threaten the world that it is even closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

It is Mr Biden's policy vis-a-vis Yemen that is a mystery.

He withdrew support for the Saudi Arabia-led effort to halt the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels' illegal takeover of the country. He then decided to delist the Houthis as a terror organisation, just weeks after they had been put on the list by the outgoing Trump administration.

In this Jan. 25, 2021 photo, Houthi supporters chant slogans as they attend a demonstration against the United States over its decision to designate the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization in Sanaa, Yemen. President Joe Biden is distancing himself from Saudi Arabia's rulers over their war in Yemen and rights abuses. That includes Biden announcing Feb. 4, 2021, he would make good on a campaign pledge to cut U.S. support for a five-year Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen.  (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Almost as if to signal that it was a mistake to have done so, within days of Mr Biden declaring his intention to end the war in Yemen, the Houthis began escalating tensions in the Arabian Peninsula. They have launched repeated strikes inside neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a long-time US ally, including, most recently, a drone attack on Abha airport.

This escalation has forced the US to respond firmly by keeping intact sanctions on three of the group’s key leaders. Even Russia, no ally of the US, has called on Iran to force its proxy to deescalate tensions.

Evidently, diplomacy is being given a chance.

The EU is providing crucial support to Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, and to Timothy Lenderking, the US Special Envoy for Yemen, who earlier in the week brought to Riyadh new ideas regarding a ceasefire and the revival of the political process. Financial inducements to the Houthis could be part of these proposals, alongside political reforms and a developmental package for all of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman, received the UN secretary-general's special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, right, and the US envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking. SPA
What would Washington do if it fails to curb Houthis' strikes inside Saudi Arabia? Would it resort to military intervention?

Saudi Arabia itself has pledged support for the US diplomatic effort to end the war. One could even argue that the Houthi attacks have brought the Biden administration closer to Riyadh, as demonstrated by Mr Blinken’s call to Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister.

However, questions remain unanswered.

Does Washington have any leverage to push the Houthis towards the negotiating table with the other Yemeni parties, including the legitimate government in Aden, and Saudi Arabia in order to reach a political solution? After all, the Houthis have come to control a large part of the country. Having been taken off the terror list, and with continued backing from Tehran, what incentive do they have to push for peace? Also, what would the US do if it fails to curb their constant strikes inside Saudi Arabia? Would it resort to military intervention?

Washington would do well to remember that ending the conflict in Yemen through a peaceful settlement has proved difficult even for the regional powers. This is not just owing to Tehran’s role in the war but because of the years-long, intractable nature of the conflict itself.

Time will tell if the Biden administration’s Yemen policy, made in its early days, proves fruitful – or whether it ends up becoming the costly product of its determination to carve a niche for itself.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National