“In February, President Joe Biden announced that he was ending America’s “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, six years into the conflict that has killed around 230,000 people and triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Instead, the US role would be limited to “defensive” operations “to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
There’s just one problem: The line between “offensive” and “defensive” support is murky, and critics argue even the limited support the US is providing still helps Riyadh carry out its offensive bombing campaign in Yemen.”
“Biden’s policy sounds straightforward enough. For the past few months, the US made a clean break and no longer provides assistance to Riyadh’s ongoing strikes inside Yemen, right?
Not quite. That’s because the “defensive” support the US is still providing includes greenlighting the servicing of Saudi aircraft.
Multiple US defense officials and experts acknowledged that, through a US government process, the Saudi government pays commercial contractors to maintain and service their aircraft, and those contractors keep Saudi warplanes in the air. What the Saudis do with those fighter jets, however, is up to them.
The US could cancel those contracts at any time, thus effectively grounding the Saudi Air Force, but doing so would risk losing Riyadh as a key regional partner.”
“Riyadh, with its own money and at no cost to the US taxpayer, uses a US government program to procure maintenance for its warplanes. (That service likely was included when the Saudis bought the American-made warplanes.) It may not be the US military providing direct support, then, but the service was still greenlit by the US.”
“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an Offensive Air Force and a Defensive Air Force. It just has the one aerial service that the US supports.
Still, the offensive part is relatively straightforward: The Saudis find a Houthi target inside Yemen they want to hit, and they bomb it.
But it gets more complicated when you consider what “defensive” might mean. As the Houthis continue to launch missile and drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia, Riyadh might decide to strike a few of the Houthis’ launch points to dissuade further assaults.
Would such a move be defensive or offensive? It’s unclear.
What is clear is that without the US-approved maintenance of Saudi fighters, Riyadh wouldn’t really have the option of launching such retaliatory responses. “They’d be able to fly two out of every 10 aircraft,” said Des Roches. That would give the Houthis an edge in the ongoing fight.”
“it seems likely that US-authorized contractors maintaining Saudi warplanes are indirectly involved in helping the Saudis carry out “offensive” operations, however one defines them. “If we’re servicing the planes that are fighting the war, we’re still supporting the war,” said the Democratic congressional aide. That the contract remains in place, after all, is a policy decision. The US could also decide to maintain other equipment and provide training instead of keeping Saudi aircraft in the sky.
But it’s also true that without the maintenance support, Saudi Arabia would be further exposed to all kinds of attacks from the Houthis (and others). And after nixing the contract, the decades-old ties between Washington and Riyadh might not just spiral downward but sever entirely.”
“Saudi Arabia, along with several other countries in the region that joined its war effort, has been fighting a war in Yemen since 2015. They’re fighting to oust the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran that had just overthrown Yemen’s internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led coalition, which until recently was also supported by the US, wants to return Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power.
When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched the war, they used military force to stop planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran.
But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting.
That concern proved devastatingly prophetic.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that more than 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve.
What CNN found last month fit the years-long pattern: Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year.”
“It turns out the State Department disagrees with the growing narrative since the CNN report’s release.
“It is not a blockade,” a spokesperson for the agency said Monday. “Food is getting through, commodities are getting through, so it is not a blockade.”
However, the administration does acknowledge there has been a slowdown in the amount of fuel coming into the country, and they’re concerned about it. “The United States understands the urgent need for fuel to get into Hodeidah port,” Lenderking told me on Tuesday. “This is a constant priority in our conversations with the Republic of Yemen government and Saudi Arabia.”
But the primary culprit for the fuel slowdown, the State Department and the National Security Council contend, is not Saudi Arabia but rather the Hadi government.
Here’s why: Even though it doesn’t actually control the bulk of the country and is operating out of Saudi Arabia, it is still the legitimate, recognized government of Yemen and thus retains authority over who is allowed to dock in Yemen’s ports.
Which means that if the Hadi government doesn’t grant permission to a particular ship to dock in Hodeidah (or elsewhere), that ship can’t dock. The Saudi-led coalition enforces those decisions if necessary with its ships and planes, blocking any vessels Hadi’s government says can’t come in.
And that process of approving ships to dock is where the State Department says the real problem lies, leading to the fuel shortage.
The State Department said it opposes any arbitrary restrictions of commodities entering Yemen, but that “we respect the right of the government to control its access to ports.” However, the spokesperson added, “We do press them and work with them to make sure that their process improves and runs as smoothly as possible.””
“The Houthis are partly to blame here, too. Experts told me the rebels aren’t great about dispersing the fuel that is allowed to come off the ships. Sometimes they shut down gas stations so that the price of fuel they control on the black market goes up. So they are also responsible for why fuel isn’t getting to those who need it.”
“All three parties — the Hadi government, the Saudis, and the Houthis — are guilty of purposely using fuel, and access to it, as a weapon in this war.”
“the severe restrictions in fuel imports at Hodeidah aren’t happening out of pure malice, but they are happening on purpose. It’s part of an effort by the Hadi government and the Saudis to stop the Houthis from exploiting fuel revenues for their own benefit. The Hadi government “has declined to let them in [to Hodeidah] because of a long-running dispute with the Houthis over revenue payments,” the UN spokesperson told me.”
“The Biden administration’s decision to pull the United States out of Yemen’s six-year-long civil war was a highly prudent act. But it’s merely a first step. Washington’s Middle East policy must be anchored in restraint and humbleness. This simply won’t happen until U.S. policy makers realign the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship with the realities of the world today—not on how the world looked during the Cold War.”
“The Biden administration plans to remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list as soon as Friday, reversing a last-minute move by the Trump administration and reinforcing President Joe Biden’s new approach to the conflict in Yemen.
In mid-January, just days before Biden would be sworn into office, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced President Trump’s intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Critics said the move was an attempt by Pompeo to both hurt Iran by punishing one of its proxies and box in the incoming Biden administration as he headed out the door, but Pompeo seems to truly believe the decision was the right one.”
“President Joe Biden said the US would seek an elusive diplomatic settlement to the conflict, which would require the Houthis to strike a deal with Saudi Arabia, regional players, and possibly the US.
The Biden administration then moved quickly to revoke the FTO label: It’d be bad politics for the US to negotiate with a terrorist group.
But there’s another reason to do so, too: It could help Yemen’s most vulnerable. The war has killed about 233,000 people, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, and health services, while another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.
Trump’s labeling of the Houthi rebels as terrorists made providing that assistance harder. Simply put, for aid groups to deliver assistance, they would have to negotiate with Houthi members who control a lot of Yemen’s territory. But US law essentially says no aid organization can do deals with terrorists, even if it’s to provide life-saving support to those in need
There’s a workaround if the US provides waivers to certain aid teams, but the Trump administration rushed its decision before working on and implementing an effective plan.”
““This decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens,” a State Department official told me on the condition of anonymity.
“Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the official said, adding that the US remains committed to protecting Saudi Arabia from further Houthi attacks.
Activist and humanitarian groups praised the administration’s decision.”
“The Trump administration announced its intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” — a move that could exacerbate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”
“The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Both sides have launched numerous attacks and committed atrocities. The Saudi-led coalition, for example, killed around 30 children on a bus in 2019. The Houthis, meanwhile, launched missiles at an airport and airbase in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and at Saudi oil stations last year.
In his statement, Pompeo said the new terrorism designation is “intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.””
“Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. It has helped coalition forces push back on Iran, the Houthis’ main supplier for weapons and funds. Until November 2018, the US refueled Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. Now the US mostly helps the Saudis gather intelligence.
The entire war has been a disaster. The United Nations estimated in December that about 233,000 people have died since fighting began, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, health services, and more. Meanwhile, another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.”
“One way those in need get help is through humanitarian organizations. The Houthis control Yemen’s north, and it’s impossible for those organizations to operate there without the Houthis’ approval.
If the US follows through on designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, then it will be harder for those groups to offer support for fear of possible prosecution by the US government.
As a result, “humanitarian assistance is likely going to be dramatically scaled back,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam. He added that the designation will likely scare off foreign businesses, investors, and banks, thus further decimating Yemen’s reeling economy. “Services will become less available, goods more expensive, and people’s ability to pay less possible,” Scott told me.
One way humanitarian groups have gotten around this predicament before is by asking the US government to provide waivers for them. Basically, the waivers say, “As long as you ensure you’re not helping the designated terrorist, you can continue operating as you have been.”
But Pompeo’s Sunday statement suggests the US hasn’t designed those waivers yet. “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.””
““While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, the designations do nothing to address these concerns,” reads the current letter, which is scheduled for release later this week or early next week. “They will, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.”
Altogether, the real losers of the FTO designation won’t be the Houthis. It’ll be the millions of Yemenis already struggling to stay alive because of the war the US participated in.”