Will New US Approach to Yemen Yield Results?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The new US administration announced earlier this month that it would revoke the “terrorist group” designation of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in an effort to move forward the peace process in the country. Yemen’s humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate under the repercussions of a proxy war between regional competitors. Many in the Arab world have reacted to the news with skepticism, concerned that the White House was underestimating the malign behavior of the Houthi militants, as well as the bad faith of the Iranians, whom they accuse of fueling the conflict to put pressure on the US and its allies in the region.

The UAE daily The National reports that recent developments in Yemen have complicated the incoming US administration’s efforts to bring the conflict to an end through a negotiated agreement. According to widely reported news, the Houthi attack on pro-government forces based in Marib city, “a stronghold of the internationally recognized government, threatens to complicate a renewed diplomatic push to end the war…. Yemen’s front lines have largely been in stalemate for years but a major Houthi gain in Marib would leave the group in control of what historically was known as North Yemen. Marib city is also the last line of defense before Yemen’s biggest gas and oil fields, which are in government hands. The UN’s International Organization for Migration says 106,449 people have been displaced by fighting along the Marib front lines for over a year. It said another 385,000 people could be displaced with a major front-line shift. There are 125 displacement sites around Marib, the UN agency says.”

Further adding to the rising tensions in the country, the Iranian daily Press Tv reports that Houthi leaders have also indicated they are unlikely to come to the negotiation table until what they consider the Saudi siege comes to an end: “Yemen’s Ansarullah movement says the country would positively receive any attempt to end the Saudi-led war only after the coalition attacking Yemen stops its aggression and blockade against the impoverished Arab country…. ‘We are the ones calling for constructive and successful political action after a comprehensive cessation of aggression and an end to the siege’, Abdul-Salam wrote in his tweet. ‘Based on past experiences, no political process will ever succeed under conditions of fire and siege. The aggressor must end his hostility and attacks and lift the siege of Yemen, and we are ready to deal with this issue with a positive approach’.”

Regional actors argue that the aggressive stance taken by the Houthis is mostly due to Iran’s influence over the militant movement. The Iranians, for their part, have been quick to point out that they have been in favor of a negotiated agreement from the beginning. The argument was reiterated in a recent statement by the Iranian ambassador in Yemen published by Tehran Times, in which he repeated “Tehran’s long-held position for a political solution to the Yemen crisis, noting that there is no military solution for what has happened in Yemen…. Iran’s top diplomat said Tehran is fully prepared to support any effective role played by the UN in settling the crisis, considering the very difficult conditions caused by the war and economic siege imposed on the people of Yemen…. Immediately after Saudi Arabia led a war against Yemen in March 2015 to restore a government loyal to Riyadh, Iran presented a four-point plan to the UN to end the war. Iran’s proposal called for the cessation of hostilities and an immediate end to all foreign military attacks, direct delivery of medical and humanitarian aid, the resumption of political talks and the creation of a broad Yemeni unity government.”

The Houthi military offense, coupled with continued Iranian involvement, is seen by many in the region as a sign that neither is interested in a long-term political solution that falls short of the Iranian-backed Houthis being in control of Yemen. In a strongly worded op-ed for the Arab News, Maria Maalouf, a Lebanese journalist and writer, worries that what the Biden administration “does not understand about the Houthis is their organizational abilities, which are characteristic of their terror practices, and their ability to trigger an instant crisis if they see a retreat from America on how to confront them. Worse, the language used in the announcement of the removal of the group from the official US terror list was nothing but an illusion…. If America under Biden is not willing to stand up to Houthi terror, the Arab Gulf states will have no choice but to undertake the strategic task of eliminating the Houthis themselves.”

Al Ahram’s Ahmed Mostafa shares Maalouf’s skepticism, adding that much of the violence in Yemen has come at the hands of the Houthi rebels, whom he accused of misappropriating the humanitarian aid initially destined for Yemenis struggling under the weight of both the conflict and a humanitarian disaster: “Allegations and counter allegations of hindering aid supplies have been exchanged between all parties involved in Yemen. In some cases, provision of aid – even by international agencies and UN organizations – was used as an inhumane tool in the conflict…. Despite all these reports, meetings and calls, ordinary Yemenis we spoke to expressed mixed feelings…. Some referred to the fact that even international aid might still be used in the conflict, citing how local organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party are using humanitarian assistance to garner influence in some areas.”

Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, is also critical of the approach taken by the US administration. Charbel makes clear that the Arab countries are willing to engage meaningfully to find a political solution. However, he argues that the real reason behind the violence in Yemen is Iran’s desire to pressure the US to lift its sanctions: “The Houthis’ response does not change, which is an attempt to use the arsenal placed at their disposal to target civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia, such as Abha International Airport. It is as if the Houthis are reminding us that their role is limited to escalation, and that the parties seeking a solution must resort to another address, meaning Tehran…. The purpose of the Houthi missiles is to speed up the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, and Washington’s return to the nuclear agreement. Trying to discuss a solution with the proxy is a problem, but accepting a solution – the conditions of which were set by the decision-maker – is a tragedy.”

The argument is further amplified by a Khaleej Times editorial published right before the US announcement that it would revoke the designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group. The writer expresses frustration with the US approach, albeit concluding on an optimistic note: “History is not on their side, nor are the people. These instigators and funders of terrorism have failed in their efforts in the past and they will fail miserably now and in the future. The war economy they have built over the ruins in these countries has harmed millions of young people…. Saudi Arabia has been the target again for fighting on the side of the impoverished Yemenis, millions of whom have lost their lives in the sectarian conflict. For peace efforts to make headway, Iran has a responsibility to end the violence. The UN mission will be futile unless terror proxies are reined in.”

Finally, there are those, as in this Yemen Online staff report, who see the new US stance in Yemen as a positive step forward and consider “[t]his recalibration… a sound strategy, as it removes U.S. support for what has become an unwinnable war with thousands of civilian causalities, and returns the emphasis to finding a political settlement to the conflict. Above all, it shows that this administration values diplomacy, democracy, and human rights and understands that lasting peace and security are just as dependent on these aims as military force. Whether the administration maintains this balanced approach throughout its term remains to be seen, but it is certainly a good start and a welcome departure from the past four years.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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