The Biden administration has offered some concrete details on its plan to end US support for “offensive” operations by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and “relevant” arms sales, only telling Al Jazeera that a review is ongoing.
US President Joe Biden February 4 ad the end of offensive support for Riyadh, a key ally in the region that intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the country’s Houthi rebels deposed Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and seized large swathes of territory.
While Biden’s policy pivot has been hailed by observers calling for an end to the ongoing conflict, especially after former President Donald Trump’s permissive approach to the Saudi government, many questions remain unanswered about the real changes Biden intends to make.
“Frankly, I’m worried about the message that [lack of clarity] sends to Saudi Arabia, ”said Hassan el-Tayyab, a Middle East lobbyist at the Committee of Friends on National Law (FCNL), a Quaker organization in the United States.
Rooted fighting in Yemen, a blockade imposed by Riyadh and Saudi air strikes have wreaked bloody havoc on Yemenis, with thousands of civilians killed and a humanitarian catastrophe pushing 13.5 million people to the brink of starvation.
A quarter of civilians killed in fighting over the past three years were children, according to Save the Children, with both sides – a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels – accused of committing war crimes.
“I hope there is time [for the Biden administration] to correct this and continue to make the right choices, ”al-Tayyab told Al Jazeera. “But in a situation where a child can the every 75 seconds hours count, days count, weeks count and we just don’t have time to sit on our thumbs.
Lawmakers call for clarity
Last month, dozens of US lawmakers – including Democratic Congressmen Peter DeFazio, Debbie Dingell and Ro Khanna – sent an open letter to Biden asking for clarification on the administration’s pledge to end offensive support to the coalition.
The United States began providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen – which also includes the United Arab Emirates – in March 2015 under the leadership of then-President Barack Obama. Biden was the US vice president at the time.
In 2018, under international pressure, then Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that the United States no longer drive aerial refueling of the Royal Saudi Air Force, whose attacks in Yemen have been blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitoring group.
In their February 25 letter, US lawmakers asked what US support was when the Biden administration took office; what “activities” the administration has already ended and whether the United States would continue to provide “spare and maintenance parts” to the Saudi Air Force.
They also asked what US activities had “contributed” to the continuation of the Saudi blockade on Yemen, which rights watchers have long documented as one of the most important. Conductors humanitarian crisis, and if any of them continue. Supporters of the blockade say it prevents weapons from reaching the Houthis.
“For nearly six years, the United States aided and abetted the catastrophic military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, despite the coalition’s unacceptable record of indiscriminate bombing of tens of thousands of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, refugee camps, sewage treatment plants and markets, ”the lawmakers wrote.
They requested a response by March 25, but the White House has yet to answer their questions, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Ongoing defensive support
Asked about his plan to end “offensive” support for the coalition and what that would entail, a White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email that states -United “were always reviewing our policies”.
The State Department, which oversees most arms transfers and export licenses from the United States, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the ongoing review.
The NSC spokesman noted that the Biden administration has pledged to keep its pledge “to help defend Saudi Arabia, especially in light of continuing Houthi cross-border attacks on infrastructure. civil service of Saudi Arabia ”.
All along the six years war in YemenWashington remained the largest arms exporter to Riyadh, with those exports increasing by 15% between 2016 and 2020, compared to 2011-15, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Between 2016 and 2020, Saudi Arabia obtained 79% of its arms imports from the United States.
The Biden administration at the end of January suspended arms transfers pending the Trump era in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, including deals on GBU-39 small-diameter bombs and precision-guided missiles, in what US officials have said is a standard review for any new administration.
In their letter, U.S. lawmakers called for more clarity on how the administration will define offensive versus defensive weapons and whether certain categories of weapons would be banned altogether. They also asked if naval equipment would be blocked because of its “potential role in supporting the de facto blockade” on Yemen.
The NSC statement did not answer these questions, but the spokesperson said the Biden administration had “escalated [its] diplomacy to end the war in Yemen ”, led by US special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking.
The administration recently welcomed the decision by the Saudi-led coalition to allow four fuel-carrying ships to dock in Hodeidah, a northern port controlled by the Houthis. These UN-approved ships were said to have been stranded from berthing for weeks, starting at the start of the year, causing shortages in the densely populated Houthi-controlled region, which threatened food deliveries. and drugs and the capacity to supply hospitals.
Saudi Arabia too offers a ceasefire at the end of March, which some hailed as the first proof that the new American approach was making a difference. The Houthis, however, quickly dismissed the framework as one-sided.
Lenderking “works closely with all parties in support of the United Nations initiative to fully open Sanaa Airport and Hudaydah Port to help the parties negotiate a ceasefire and revive long-dormant peace talks, ”the NSC spokesperson said, using an alternate spelling. for Hodeidah.
‘Tight rope walk’
Andreas Krieg, professor in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, said the Biden administration was torn between “keeping the campaign’s promise to be firmer on [Saudi] United Kingdom and, on the other hand, maintain a viable relationship with Saudi Arabia ”.
He told Al Jazeera it is “unrealistic” for Washington to “sift” its current arms contracts to ensure “that no military support ends up helping the offensive component of the war” in Yemen .
“The idea of banning the export of ‘offensive weapons’ that could be used in the war in Yemen should be seen as a compromise to this close American march on the issue, but not really achievable,” Krieg said.
Still, al-Tayyab said if the United States makes it clear which weapons will be affected by the end of offensive support for the coalition, the change in policy by the Biden administration may help increase international pressure to end the conflict. – and encourage other Saudi allies to end their arms exports too.
“I think [the Biden administration] can send a very strong message that the American complicity and diplomatic cover for the Saudi-led war in Yemen is over, ”he said. “Not just through rhetoric, but through real, tangible action.”