Julian Borger reports:
The distancing of Washington from Riyadh is one of the most conspicuous reversals of Donald Trump’s agenda, but it also marks a break with the policies pursued by Barack Obama, who had backed the Saudi offensive in Yemen, although he later sought to impose constraints on its air war. […]
The US will also freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and name a special envoy to Yemen, to put more pressure on the Saudis, Emiratis and the Houthi forces they are fighting, to make a lasting peace agreement.
The special envoy will be Timothy Lenderking, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who has previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
By the estimate of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the six-year-old conflict has cost the lives of some 130,000 people. This includes 13,000 civilians, many of them fatalities in targeted airstrikes. Last year, more than 19,000 such fatalities were reported—a 29% decrease over 2019, but still the third-deadliest year of the war.
The already complicated situation in Yemen has been heightened by Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels that Saudi efforts have sought to crush. Aside from Israel, the Saudis and Iranians are the two powerhouses in the region, both heavily armed, with much of Riyadh’s arsenal obtained from the United States.
As Anneline Sheline writes at Responsible Statecraft:
As long as the U.S. remains the preeminent military force in the region and its main supplier of weapons, America is culpable for Yemen’s destruction.
Yemenis are aware of this, even if many Americans are not. The war is known as the Saudi-American war in Yemen. The blockade of the Houthi-controlled ports is referred to as the American blockade. Starting in mid December 2020, an online campaign circulated on Twitter in Arabic with the hashtag “Yes to the end of the American blockade of Yemen.”
President Biden is taking a crucial first step. But as Sheline points out, more is required. In addition, he should push the Saudis and Emiratis to pull out of Yemen and stop backing the warring factions. At the same time, a quick U.S. return to the shattered Iran nuclear agreement could create some confidence-building for further talks with Iran over ending its support for the Houthis and tamping down the antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran. A tall order, to be sure. But Biden’s withdrawal of support marks an important move away from America’s counterproductive policies in the region, worsened by Trump’s wretched four years in office. That should make the next steps at least slightly easier.