On Thursday, February 4, in his first foreign policy address, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. was ending support for the Saudi offensive in the poorest Arab country, Yemen.
After the Arab Spring (a wave of pro-democracy protests throughout much of the Arab World) Yemen was thrown into a civil war, which has evolved into a power struggle between three main factions. The first is the UN-recognized and Saudi-backed government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, successor to the ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to the International Crisis Group, Hadi currently acts as a symbol of the 2011 Revolution and therefore, of change for Yemen.
The second group, the Houthis, are an Iranian-backed*, Shi’a group, which is aligned with the party of Yemen’s former ruler President Saleh, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Note that there are other, less significant factions including jihadist groups such as AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISY (Islamic State in Yemen) which do not hold nearly as much land as the Hadi-led government, the STC, or the Houthis and are thus mostly irrelevant to the main conflict in the country; however, it should be noted that they are nearly all anti-Houthi.
The third important faction, which is often grouped with the Hadi government, as they are also anti-Houthi, is the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC seeks to secede from greater Yemen and reestablish the former socialist state of South Yemen. Though their goals may seem to an outsider as aligned with the Hadi Government, the two groups are often in armed opposition, and relations are typically strained or nonexistent.
The relationship between the Houthis and the GPC has also been strained since the Houthis killed Saleh in December 2017. Even within each faction, there are various levels of instability, infighting, and chaos, which have further plunged the conflict into an unforeseeable future. Nevertheless, there have been attempts at diplomacy. However, although each side has dictated their terms for peace, they are both overall unrealistic and maximalist.
Yet while most analysts simplify the civil war in Yemen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is, of course, a far more complex situation. The Hadi-led coalition against the Houthis, if not for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would likely have been devastated by their enemies early on in the conflict. All the same, the Houthis, even without their support from Iran, would likely be unable to maintain control in Yemen, as the Shi’a they most strongly represent and put in positions of power are a minority in the country. Overall, neither of the two sides represents the general needs and desires of the Yemeni people, nor do they even represent clear ideologies. That being said, the Biden Administration must commit to a clear message if they expect any significant progress in a situation the president called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”.
Just days before the end of the Trump Administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthi movement as a “foreign terrorist organization”, a move the UN and ICRC had warned would worsen widespread famine and halt invaluable aid throughout the country. However, only 29 days later, the newly elected Biden Administration reversed this designation in order to prevent this. This shift is part of Biden’s new Yemen policy, which focuses on ending U.S.-aided military intervention, pushing toward diplomacy among the many warring factions, and sustaining support for Saudi Arabia’s defense.
But the issue many see with this multifaceted policy lies in its inevitable contradictions in the future. Perhaps for that reason, President Biden was vague when he called for ending “offensive operations” in Yemen — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has characterized its presence in Yemen as a question of national security, besides support for what they call the “legitimate” Hadi government. How then, would the Biden Administration prevent security support from bleeding into offensive support? That’s not to mention the United States’ sustained mission — which will, of course, involve military operations — to eliminate Islamic State and al-Qaeda hotbeds in Yemen.
The power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the shifting alliances within the Middle East, as well as Middle Eastern countries’ close ties with the US and other potential superpowers, will all play a role in how and when Yemen emerges from this humanitarian catastrophe.