DEVELOPMENTS IN YEMEN – 2021
One of the first insights into new developments in the Middle East in 2021 and of the foreign policy of the new President Biden, specifically in the area, has come in his announcements on Yemen. As Pierson puts it however, just because the US President says a war has ended, as with Bush in Iraq, we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate (1).
On the ground in Yemen, as in Afghanistan through most of 2019-20 during Trump’s ‘peace negotiations’ the fighting if anything has stepped up. In February 2021, Houthi fighters renewed their push to seize the oil-rich province and city of Marib. The city’s loss would be disastrous for Yemen’s beleaguered Saudi backed ‘government’. The Houthis have cut off supply lines to a district about 50km south of the city, with “the goal to lay siege to Marib. Four explosive drones were also fired by the Houthis towards Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, to the west of Khamis Mushait. The Houthis said they had targeted the airport, located around 120 km into Saudi because it has been used to launch attacks. The Houthis have hit Abha airport before; later they also claimed that drones had stopped operations at airports in Jeddah and Abha for two hours. It is worth noting that the Saudis have carried out more than 20,000 air strikes on Yemen since 2015, with one-third striking non-military sites, including schools, factories and hospitals. The Saudi offence against Yemen is increasingly turning into what they were desperately wanting to avoid; an attack on Saudi itself (2).
In the same month, on 4 February, Biden gave his first major foreign policy address as president. One topic was Yemen. Biden had promised during his presidential campaign that he would take the US out of the war. So he announced that he was ending “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen.” Biden thus provided himself with a loophole big enough to drive an Abrams tank through. Hassan El-Tayyab, a Middle East expert at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, asks: how does the Biden Administration distinguish offensive from defensive operations?
Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is quoted in the MEE as saying that ‘the Biden administration’s use of the word offensive appears intentionally vague.’ Does the Administration consider intelligence-sharing to be offensive? How about targeting assistance? Logistical support? Transfer of spare parts for coalition warplanes? El-Tayyab says, we don’t know. Except the US General (MacKenzie) in charge of Centcom – so for the Middle East – says they will continue to share intelligence on ‘Yemeni attacks’ with the Sauds. Yet a real withdrawal of US (and UK) logistics support would almost deal a death blow to the Saudi war effort, which is not making any advances on the ground; indeed in Marib is suffering more defeats.
To my mind Biden’s policy statement is offensive in a different way. Do they think we are all fools? As the former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Sanaa, Nabeel Khoury, told MEE, “If the Saudis make a decision to continue regardless of what the US action is, then they would have to get supplies from somewhere else. It is possible but complicated because to supply American jets, you need American ammunition and American equipment.’ But the war will go on, whatever the US says about it (3).
US Drone Assassinations in Yemen
From 2015-17, the Obama Administration gave the Saudi-led coalition practically unconditional support. Only when a few in Congress began to question the Obama administration’s arms deals did it then go more carefully. Biden in 2021 emphasized that the US remains committed to Saudi Arabia’s ‘defense’. (WW quote marks) Biden said that “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV [drone] strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.’ Obama said the same thing in 2015. The US would defend Saudi Arabia. Obama took the US into the Yemen war in 2015 as a consolation prize to the Gulf States which had opposed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But, as Pierson goes on to argue, if everything the US, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have done in Yemen since 2015 has been defensive, what isn’t defensive? Stretch the definition of defense sufficiently and even dropping a 227 kg laser-guided bomb manufactured by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin on a bus carrying 40 schoolchildren, as a Saudi warplane did on August 9, 2018, might be deemed defensive.
One category of military activity is definitely non-offensive in the eyes of the Biden Administration. According to Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the US will continue operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Biden has said…nothing about US drone strikes on Yemen which have killed many innocent Yemenis. US drone strikes in Yemen date back to November 2002, when a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator drone destroyed a moving car carrying six suspected members of Al-Qaeda. President Barack Obama ordered ten times more drone strikes worldwide than President George W. Bush. The upward trend continued under President Donald Trump, who carried out more drone strikes in four years than President Obama did in eight. How many drone strikes will Biden carry out?
It will take more than the US simply stepping aside to bring peace to Yemen. …Yemen is rightly called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The UN estimated in December that some 233,000 Yemenis, including 3,000 children, have died…A land, sea, and air blockade remains. A US Congress study suggests 80% of the 30 million population require some form of assistance. ‘In case the President gave the misimpression that the U.S. was getting out of the business of killing Yemenis completely, the next day the State Department issued a clarifying statement, “Importantly, this does not apply to offensive operations against either ISIS or AQAP.” If the Special Forces and air strikes are intended to defeat ‘terrorism’ in Yemen as in other countries in the Middle East under attack, they are having the opposite effect. As the young, late, Yemeni writer Ibrahim Mothana told Congress in 2013, “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants. … Unfortunately, liberal voices in the United States are largely ignoring, if not condoning, civilian deaths and extrajudicial killings in Yemen.” (This fact) was affirmed in Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for president. While Sanders was outspoken in his opposition to the Saudi led war, as a presidential candidate he repeatedly voiced his support of Obama’s drone wars. “All of that and more,” he replied when asked if, as president, drones and Special Forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.
Making Arms Sales and Lending Kings
U.S. arms sellers seem unruffled by the Biden news, as he still left open the possibility of more arms sales. Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes reassured investors anticipating this move, “peace is not going to break out in the Middle East anytime soon. I think it remains an area where we’ll continue to see solid growth.”
The Congressional Research Service in a report updated on December 8, 2020, “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention,” references a major factor in U.S. policy planning regarding Yemen that the president did not mention. The 5 million bpd of oil passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen’s western coast.’ (4)
Two weeks after Pres Biden’s apparent part shift from the Trump policy on Yemen, the US State Department called on the Houthi movement to stop its attacks on the ‘government’s northern stronghold of Marib’, and instead ‘turn to negotiations’, claiming that ‘there is no military solution’. To me, this seems problematic on a number of fronts. Rather like the Saudis when they were losing before comes the attempt at a ceasefire. The Houthis would be entitled to think that such US policy assertions only come with likely defeat. No one has yet publically told the Saudis for six or more years that their aims have no military solution. And Marib is not a ‘stronghold’ as the MEE claims. If it was, why would it be so close to falling?
The new US envoy appointed by Biden, Timothy Lenderking, called the Houthi behaviour ‘reprehensible’. No comment on the Saudis reprehensible behaviour. Asked about Biden’s decision to end US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, Linderking acknowledged that the details of that announcement are “still being discussed”. New Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also made it made clear that ‘we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice. Saudi Arabia needs to have the ability to defend itself.” Since the US has allowed the Saudi to commit target practice on Yemen for the last 6 years this defence of Saudi rings totally hollow as well.
Even the FT writers can see this. Quoting one retired diplomat, Gerald Federstein, his view is that ‘Reality bites…Washington can’t break with the Saudis. Now the new Biden chief of intelligence, Avril Haines, has promised the release of a Congress document on the murder of Khashoggi. Biden promises to speak to the Saudi King not MbS; two more ways of putting pressure on Saudi policy.
Nevertheless, the new look Biden Yemen policy looks like Obama dressed up slightly differently. It seems to me that the Houthis would be entitled to view the 2021 US policy version with derision. The new envoy has an unfortunate name. Lending the Yemenis a king seems a rather good description of both US and Saudi behaviour in the region for 60 years. There is little evidence here that it will change. US Presidents, their State Departments and their envoys speak with forked tongues.
There are no clean hands in the war in Yemen.
According to the UN, the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for at least two-thirds of Yemen deaths. Indeed without the war being launched most of the deaths would not have happened, as the Houthi killings have usually come in retaliation. UN agencies have now warned in early ’21 that about 400,000 Yemeni children aged under five were in danger of dying of acute malnutrition this year. The UN agencies also warned that about 1.2 million pregnant or breastfeeding women are expected to suffer from extreme malnutrition in 2021.
But as the Trump administration blamed the Houthis for the continuation of the war launched by the Saudis, the Biden administration so far also gets close to saying the same thing, especially when the Saudis are losing. The party responsible for a smaller proportion of the death toll at worst is the only one still criticised while unconditional ‘defensive’ support is provided for Saudi Arabia. The US State department under Biden has now notified Congress of its intention to revoke the terrorist designation against the Houthis that the Trump’s administration announced only one day before he left. Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, argued that “the Trump administration’s last-minute, cynical designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation would have simply added ‘another burden’.
“This decision by an outgoing administration makes no sense from the political, moral or national security point-of-view,” Nabeel Khoury, told MEE. “The designation would apply to all parties involved in the war in Yemen, since they are all likely guilty of war crimes, or it wouldn’t apply at all.”
There is no doubt that the Houthis share responsibility for the crisis. However, that does not necessarily make them terrorists, nor does it mean that they are the only party to share such responsibility. ‘Politically, if you want peace in Yemen, the Houthis are an important player in this war; you need to be able to negotiate with them,” Khoury said. The Houthis themselves will be less inclined to talk to American diplomats if they are officially designated as terrorists. Humanitarian groups were also deeply opposed to the ‘terror’ designation, saying it jeopardised their operations. Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, conveyed Tehran’s readiness to support the UN peace efforts. For David Wearing the UK maintains a ‘sheepish silence’. Days on from Biden’s announcement, the UK foreign office had issued no statement in response (5).
Iran’s influence in Yemen is also often exaggerated. As international affairs analyst Thomas Juneau notes: “Iran’s investment in Yemen has been limited; it has therefore brought only limited influence.” Meanwhile, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, told MEE: “This step is not in America’s interest as it will insulate America from playing any political role in the future, whether in Yemen or in the region, as Yemen has become a regional power…(6)
6 years of war, 80% of Yemen’s population are under Houthi control.
For Italian ex Al Jazerra journalist, Barbara Bibbo, human rights violations have gone under-reported and the Houthis have departed from their initial connotation of a popular resistance movement fighting for justice. ‘They have dismantled state institutions and arrested and tortured former officials, political opponents and journalists. Theological indoctrination in schools and the recruitment of child soldiers for the front lines have been widely documented. The government and coalition forces both use children as soldiers, taking advantage of poor living conditions.
Bibbo blames Houthi ‘isolation’ from the rest of Yemen’s political system, estrangement of most of the population under their rule, and appalling human rights violations are playing right into the hands of the government and its Gulf allies, whose propaganda campaigns have never ceased to portray the movement as a terrorist group.’
She also writes that the US decision to reverse the designation of Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist organisation could complicate the peace process if strict conditions for a return to political engagement are not imposed on the ‘rebel group’. “Removing the designation of terrorist group without asking the Houthis for a return to democratic practices and a change in their terror policies against the Yemeni population is a mistake,” Bushra Nasr, a Yemeni economic development expert and human rights activist, told journalists in Geneva. “There is no doubt that the Houthis use terror practices against civilians and are committing human rights violations, as are the members of the Gulf coalition,” said Ahmed al-Dubai, a professor at Edinburgh Napier University. “Both the coalition and the Houthis are responsible for blatant violations of human rights, but the international community is clearly turning a blind eye to the fact that, under the Houthis, Yemenis are becoming subjects to a theocratic regime,” Nasr said.
Moreover, UN expert Kamel Jendoubi argues that “Civilians in Yemen are not starving, they are being starved by the parties to the conflict.” According to Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has 300 staff in the field in Yemen, humanitarian agencies have been impeded from delivering aid by both sides. “We have had endless problems…with the Saudi’s shelling that has never ceased,” said Egeland. “With the Houthis too, there have been difficulties, although the situation has been improving as of late.”
Discontent with the work of UN envoy Martin Griffiths has grown, as Yemenis have expressed concerns that his simplistic approach of a “conflict between two sides” does not reflect the complexity and volatility of Yemen’s politics.”The UN envoy has… no vision or plan for its solution,” Dubai said. UN-led peace efforts have been deadlocked since the 2018 Stockholm agreement, which was limited to the areas of Hodeidah city and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa, and which also envisaged a mechanism for prisoner exchange. But UN progress on a broader political settlement has been virtually non-existent (7).
And the UK Arms Lobby
Saudi Arabia does not have a sophisticated domestic arms industry. According to Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, if the US was to stop selling F-15 aircraft components to the Saudi air force, these aircraft would be grounded within two weeks. This is a view shared by Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank, who has said that Saudi forces “cannot operate” without US and British support.
In 2019, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were approved illegally, causing the government to temporarily stop approving new sales while it conducted a review into their legality. This past July, arms sales were resumed, a decision that is subject to a further legal challenge.
There are other reasons to be sceptical about Pres Biden on Yemen. He was vice president when the Saudi-Yemen war began, and yet the White House refused to take the necessary action to stop it. Biden has spent decades at the heart of a system that has allowed these policies to flourish.
Meanwhile, the British government has been accused by campaigners of “putting profit before Yemeni lives” after it authorised the export of almost $1.9bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since a ban was lifted in July ‘20. According to figures released by the Department for International Trade, the UK authorised the sale of $1.88bn worth of arms – including missiles and bombs – between the period of July and September 2020.
“This is the largest increase in arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015 and takes the known total of licences up to £6.7bn since the Saudi intervention in Yemen started.
UK Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said British arms sales are done with “great care” to ensure they do not lead to any breaches of humanitarian law (8).
Nevertheless, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, pushed the UK “to align itself fully with its closest security ally and end similar arms exports connected to the war”. Echoing the same line, Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said “the UK arms trading and technical support sustains the war in Yemen. “The US decision on arms sales leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated.”
On this basis if
the Biden decision had been different, we should just follow the USA
anyway. Even with a UK ‘alignment’ to
Biden the same hypocrisy about defensive warfare and the use of drones remains.
- Pierson, C. Yemen: “Mission Accomplished”… For Now? (Counter Punch 11.02.21).
- For a longer description of these attacks see Wilde, W – Yemen, Arabia and the Middle East. Talk at Wymington Church, January 2020.
- Middle East Eye (MEE) reporters 11.02.21
- Terrell, B. Ending the Other War in Yemen (Counter Punch 12.2. 21)
- MEE 08.02, 14.02, 16.02; Financial Times 19.02.21
- Kilani, A. in MEE 21.01. 21
- Bibbo, B. Lack of international pressure on Yemen’s Houthis could further complicate the war. 14.02.21. Barbara Bibbo is an Italian journalist who has been a producer at Aljazeera English between 2008 and 2015,
- Quote from Smith, A, a spokesperson for Campaign Against the Arms Trade (MEE 10.12 20) and more reporting 09.02.21
United Arab Emirates deeply involved in Yemen despite claims of withdrawal
Sheren Khalel 22 February 2021 (Middle East Eye)
The war in Yemen is emerging as a top foreign policy concern for US President Joe Biden’s administration, and while Saudi Arabia has taken the bulk of criticism for its role, the UAE, while claiming disengagement, remains deeply involved.
The UAE announced in October ’20 that it had ended its military involvement in Yemen, but those documenting the war have insisted otherwise. From maintaining strategic islands to air and sea ports, military bases and militias, the UAE is accused of being heavily active. Justin Russel, head of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs think-tank, which is levying a lawsuit against the US State Department over a now-paused arms deal to the UAE, told MEE that “The UAE, either in the spotlight or under the radar, continues to be an aggressor in the region…. The UAE’s withdrawal announcement drew international attention away and basically took the rest of the world off the scent of what they are actually doing.’
The UAE’s endgame is…to make sure that they have a government in Yemen that is going to make it easy for their oil to travel through Bab-el-Mandeb,” Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemen-born activist and professor at Michigan State University told MEE.
From Socotra, an island at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, to Mayyun, an island right in the middle of Bab-el-Mandeb the narrow stretch of water between Yemen and Africa, at the southernmost point of the Red Sea] the UAE has manoeuvred control with hopes to maintain influence over ports and seabound traffic in the region. Yemen’s (Houthi) government insists those islands and ports remain under Emirate control to this day.
They also say the UAE was refusing to reopen Al Rayan airport in Mukalla, a bustling southeastern seaport and the capital city of Yemen’s largest governorate. The UAE turned the airport into a military base for its forces around the start of the war and has refused to reopen the facility, it says for security reasons. They also claim that the UAE uses it “as an illegal prison to commit heinous forms of torture against Yemenis”.
…There are some indications that the UAE is pulling back some of its forces, such as the recent dismantling of the Assab military port and airstrip that it built in Eritrea, 40 miles west of Yemen and right off the coast of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. This military base was a strategic post that the UAE used to import weapons and troops – including foreign mercenaries. Recent satellite imagery has detailed the base’s disassembly.
Adeimi warned that the UAE is likely keeping in place foreign trained mercenary forces that it has trained and funded..while pulling out their official ground troops…The UAE has been able to take advantage of the Saudis being the front-facing group for this war, while they’ve been able to kind of take a step back and be behind the scenes.”
The Southern Transitional Council (effectively ruling from Aden) is backed by the UAE and wouldn’t be in existence without the UAE… A Human Right Watch Report in mid February ‘21 urged the US to levy sanctions against the two powers to ensure that neither… has “the means to commit further grave violations (even) of the laws of war “.
Around the end of former US President Donald Trump’s term, the administration forced through a gigantic $23bn weapons deal with the UAE, which included the sale of 18 killer drones and 50 F-35 jets. Russel also pointed out that it is not clear whether the US would oppose arms sales for the UAE to use in Libya, where it is involved in another proxy war. Russel called instead for a complete shut down of all US weapons and training contracts with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “All (these weapons deals) do is exacerbate these very large historical human rights crises in the region,” he said.
The UAE has long sought the means to purchase the F-35 jets, but had failed to do so until the Trump administration became adamant about adding Middle East normalisation deals with Israel to its foreign policy legacy. Other than Israel, the US had previously barred any country in the Middle East from purchasing F-35s out of concerns that the military equipment would damage Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’, which is enshrined and required by US law (for saying this a Guardian journalist got sacked recently for being ‘anti Semitic’, according to Craig Murray).
The nearly $3bn sale of MQ-9 Reapers – armed drones – is also a significant order: the second-largest sale of US drones to a single country, according to Reuters. The Washington Post also reported that the munitions package included thousands of Mark 82 bombs, guided bombs, missiles and other arms.
During its last few weeks in office, the Trump administration pushed through a whirlwind of arms deals with the Middle East, including the approval of $290m in bombs to Saudi Arabia on 29 December ‘20. On the same day, the State Department also announced a $4bn sale of Apache helicopters to Kuwait, $104m in defence equipment to outfit the plane of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and another $65.6m in precision targeting equipment for Egyptian warplanes.
In December ‘20, two attempts to block portions of the UAE sale were shot down by Senate Republicans despite growing calls from anti-war and human rights groups to halt it.