February 05, 2021
FILE – The Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. PHOTO: AFP
By Rebecca Kheel
President Biden on Thursday announced an end to U.S. support for offensive operations in the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen.
“This war has to end,” Biden said during an address at the State Department. “And to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.”
Biden also confirmed he has appointed veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as his special envoy to Yemen, saying Lenderking will work with the United Nations and “all parties to the conflict to push for a diplomatic resolution.”
Biden’s announcement will not affect U.S. military operations against Yemen’s al Qaeda affiliate because those are “actions that we undertake in service of protecting the homeland and protecting American interests in the region and our allies and partners,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of Biden’s speech.
In choosing to end support for offensive operations in Yemen, Biden has taken a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to review the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he at one point described as a “pariah” state.
But Biden also stressed Thursday the United States would continue defending Saudi Arabia against attacks.
“Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, [drone] strikes and other threats from Iranian supplied forces in multiple countries,” Biden said. “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people.”
The United States has been providing logistics and military support to a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen’s civil war, as well as billions of dollars in weapons sales. Last week, the State Department announced it was pausing and reviewing arms sales to the Saudis, as well as to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which is also part of the Yemen coalition, have been notified of Biden’s decision to end support of offensive operations, Sullivan said.
“We are pursuing a policy of no surprises when it comes to these types of actions, so they understand that this is happening, and they understand our reasoning and rationale,” he said.
Support for the Saudi coalition began during the Obama administration as the administration sought to mend ties after Saudi opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. The coalition is fighting Houthi rebels that U.S. officials say receive weapons and other support from Iran.
But opposition to U.S. support for the war mounted as thousands of civilians were killed in Saudi bombing raids. The United Nations has also warned Yemen is on the verge of widespread catastrophic famine.
U.S. lawmakers in both parties have also been increasingly opposed to support for the Saudis after their killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The Trump administration ended the U.S. military’s aerial refueling of Saudi jets in the war amid the mounting opposition but in other ways ramped up support for the Saudis, which it saw as critical to its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Former President Trump pushed through an $8.1 billion arms sale to the Saudis in 2019 over congressional opposition by invoking “emergency” authorities, citing alleged threats by Iran.
The Trump administration also approved two more precision-guided bomb sales to the Saudis in the final weeks of his presidency.
In another action at the end of Trump’s tenure, the administration officially designated the Houthis as terrorists, a move that humanitarian groups have warned will exacerbate the crisis in Yemen by preventing needed aid shipments to areas under Houthi control.
The Biden administration has said it is reviewing the designation, and, in the meantime, the Treasury Department has approved a license to allow all transactions with the Houthis despite the designation.
Longtime opponents of the war in Yemen hailed Biden’s decision Thursday to end support for offensive operations, but stressed it should be just a first step.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in our foreign policy — one that prioritizes human rights and diplomatic solutions,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
“In addition to ending U.S. military, logistics and intelligence support for the Saudi coalition, the U.S. must cease involvement in the Saudi-led de-facto blockade of Yemen that has helped push millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation,” Khanna added. “We should also swiftly and fully reverse the Trump administration’s reckless designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. It’s critical we ensure Yemeni civilians have access to the food, medicine, fuel and other necessities on which they rely.”