On the eve of President Biden’s inauguration, his Secretary of State nominee, Antony Blinken, sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His nomination hearing traversed the globe but wedged between questions on a resurgent Russia and a competing China, were many queries on the incoming administration’s policies towards Yemen. The Trump administration’s midnight decision to declare the Yemeni Houthi rebels a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) only worsens an already dire situation in a country where a grotesque civil war and severe humanitarian crisis continue unabated. The declaration put diplomacy and humanitarian efforts at risk by subjecting business and humanitarian efforts in Houthi-controlled territory to potential criminal prosecution. The UN has warned that the decision will complicate aid efforts and commercial food delivery and could lead to a famine “on a scale not seen for 40 years,” making Yemen policy an immediate priority for Biden and Blinken.
In his announcement of the FTO designation, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited a December 30th missile attack at Aden Airport in Southern Yemen. The explosions that ripped across the tarmac killed over 25 civilians and wounded 110. The internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Trump administration placed blame squarely on the Houthis for targeting a plane arriving from Saudi Arabia carrying members of Yemen’s newly formed unity government. The Houthis have denied responsibility for the attack to little avail, and the official government called for an international investigation to identify the source of what the United Nations called a possible war crime.
Gruesome as the Aden attack was, it marked only the latest atrocity against Yemeni civilians in a six-year civil war that has seen all parties commit war crimes and pushed the country to the brink of famine. Of the 28 million people living in Yemen, 24 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Of that 24 million, 14 million are in acute need of aid to avoid starvation. Secretary Pompeo’s decision to label the Houthis an FTO is a far cry from much-needed conflict resolution or provision of vital aid. Instead, the decision has magnified Yemeni suffering, increased the likelihood that millions of Yemenis will starve, and failed to generate new military or diplomatic leverage to contest Iranian influence or resolve the conflict.
This article seeks to shine light upon the U.S. role in the conflict in Yemen and to offer policy recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration. The new administration should unreservedly reject the FTO designation, restore and bolster humanitarian aid, halt support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war, use diplomatic leverage to push for a political resolution to the conflict, and support the peace process by channeling development funding for Yemen’s reconstruction. The previous administration’s policy of providing nearly unqualified support for the prosecution of a brutal war with no hope of a military solution has imposed immense suffering on the Yemeni people, entrenched Iranian influence, and destabilized the Arabian Peninsula. It is long past time for a change.
History of the Yemen Conflict
The Yemeni Civil War traces its origins to long-standing grievances over resource distribution and political power, most prominently between elites in the capital of Sana’a and the Houthi movement to the country’s north, near the border with Saudi Arabia. These tensions boiled to the surface in 2014 during popular protests over President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s decision to revoke fuel subsidies throughout Yemen. The Houthi movement co-opted the ensuing protests, which eventually devolved into a multi-party civil war of staggering complexity. At the time, Hadi was entering his second year as president after the Arab spring had forced the former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power in 2012. As Hadi grappled with the myriad problems Saleh left behind — from corruption and unemployment to a strong separatist movement in the South — his slow progress left many in Yemen disillusioned. The Houthi rebels, a Zaydi-Shia movement from Northern Yemen, exploited the weaknesses of Hadi’s government to mount a slow-motion takeover of Sana’a. The Iranian-backed Houthis had a history of armed resistance, and had launched several failed rebellions against former President Saleh from 2004 to 2010. This time, they succeeded.
In the winter and spring of 2015, the Houthis squeezed President Hadi from power, seized the port city of Hodeidah on the Red Sea and threatened Aden, Yemen’s second city in the South. In response, the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies launched a military campaign against the Houthis meant to counter Iranian influence in Yemen and restore the Hadi government. Their campaign continues to this day.
In March 2015, as the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign against the Houthis, the Obama administration offered support for the intervention via logistical, refueling, and intelligence capacity. U.S. officials saw the Saudi and Emirati intervention as a means of restoring the internationally recognized Hadi government while smoothing over U.S.-Gulf frictions created by the Iran nuclear deal and Arab Spring uprisings. Moreover, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rush to initiate Operation Decisive Storm left the U.S. with little time to consider alternatives. As an anonymous American defense official told the New York Times in 2015, “If you ask why we’re backing this, beyond the fact that the Saudis are allies and have been allies for a long time, the answer you’re going to get from most people — if they were being honest — is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it.”
What was expected to be a quick air campaign morphed into a protracted conflict. After some initial military victories by the Saudi-led coalition, the battlelines solidified into a stalemate that outlived the Obama administration. Riyadh struggled to control its junior partners, particularly the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a coalition of Southern Yemenis favoring political independence from the central government in Sana’a. While the outgoing administration signaled regret over the harm caused by the intervention, the incoming Trump team ratcheted up support. Beginning almost immediately, the new administration approved a series of arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the bipartisan will of Congress and continued them even after the Saudis’ brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Yet the Houthi position on the battlefield has only strengthened over the last four years. The Houthis have consolidated control over territory containing 80% of the population and have emerged as the most powerful single faction on the ground. Meanwhile, the conflict has cost an estimated 233,000 lives and repeatedly brought the country to the brink of famine. Today, the UN considers Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
U.S. Interests in Yemen
Beyond the human concern over the tragic suffering of the Yemeni people, the United States has a limited set of security interests in Yemen. These include containing Iranian influence in the region, supporting regional stability, and perhaps most importantly, countering the external threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These interests, as well as U.S. normative goals, have all been undermined by the ongoing conflict.
The Saudis and other Iran hawks argue that U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen is necessary to contain Iranian influence. Yet popular commentary on the war tends to overstate ideological ties between Iran and the Houthis. Houthi grievances against the Yemeni state derive much more from complaints over Yemeni political economy and marginalization following the Arab Spring than over sectarian grievances stoked by an outside power. At the outset of the conflict, Iranian backing for the Houthis was relatively minimal, with only a handful of advisers and experts from Iran and Hezbollah advising the rebels on the ground. The United States even maintained an informal intelligence relationship with the Houthis directed against AQAP before the Civil War began. Yet Saudi pressure has pushed the Houthis into Iran’s arms. With nowhere else to turn for support, the Houthis have become dependent on Tehran for financial support and security assistance, including access to its missile and drone program, which the Houthis have used to strike targets on Saudi territory. Though Yemen is not a strategic priority for Iran in the same manner as Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, Tehran has seized the opportunity to sow chaos and bleed the Saudis financially and militarily through asymmetric warfare. The Saudis have spent tens of billions of dollars on the campaign, with Iran investing a relative pittance of less than $100 million a year in the Houthis — other estimates put the Iranian cost at even lower figures. In short, the Saudi campaign has done little but expand Iranian ideological influence in Yemen and created opportunities for Iran to strike the Saudis through their proxies.
Meanwhile, U.S. support for the Saudi campaign has undermined other, more important U.S. objectives in the region, like neutralizing AQAP. Unlike the Houthis, who do not threaten the U.S. homeland, AQAP will continue to pose a threat to Americans. While U.S. and Emirati pressure has significantly degraded AQAP, prolonged civil war jeopardizes that progress. As long as Yemen is a failed state and a humanitarian catastrophe, it will remain fertile ground for violent extremist organizations. Most counterterrorism experts agree that lack of access to economic and educational opportunities coupled with exposure to extreme violence at the hands of security forces are driving factors of radicalization. Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign continues to foster these conditions.
Policymakers should recognize that American support for the Saudi air campaign continues to fuel resentment, providing a recruitment tool for AQAP. Investigators have found remnants of American-made bombs in the wake of numerous strikes that killed or endangered Yemeni civilians, including an attack that left dozens of schoolboys dead. The United Nations have labeled these strikes as potential war crimes and the U.S. State Department worried they could expose U.S. officials to legal risk. The best way to address the AQAP danger instead is to resolve the conflict, provide basic governance, and ensure that no more American-made munitions fall on Yemeni school buses and hospitals.
Finally, the war has created a security environment that provides opportunities for AQAP. In April 2015, AQAP occupied Yemen’s fifth largest city, al-Mukalla. In the year it governed the city, it built alliances, syphoned $100 million from the Central Bank of Yemen, and burnished its credibility with local tribes and militias. In the following years, Emirati and Saudi-backed militias cut deals with and at times recruited AQAP fighters into their ranks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to have illegally transferred military equipment purchased from the United States — from small arms to Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — to AQAP fighters and hardline Salafi militias. The war has provided AQAP the opportunity to use American weapons and facilitated the transfer of American technology to Iran, which seeks to reverse-engineer and exploit vulnerabilities in American military equipment. Only a peace settlement can eliminate this security vacuum that allows AQAP space to reconstitute.
The Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to end the suffering of millions of Yemenis while advancing strategic U.S. objectives. This begins by immediately reversing the Trump administration’s FTO designation and terminating support for the Saudi and UAE-led coalition in Yemen — which the Biden-Harris administration has pledged to do.
Though the Houthis are without question a brutal group that has committed war crimes in Yemen, an FTO designation is an inherently political act, and it should serve to advance U.S. interests. The Houthi designation fails this test. It generates little additional leverage — the Houthis are not integrated into the international financial system, and they have few assets outside of Yemen to sanction. Indeed, the designation only increases their dependence on Iran, while they can continue to extract resources from the Yemeni war economy. More importantly, even with waivers or caveats, the designation forces most commercial food suppliers to leave the Yemeni market and makes it very difficult for diplomats and aid organizations to negotiate with the Houthis or continue providing aid to a desperate populace. Though the Houthis have blocked and seized food aid in the past, we should not allow their actions to hold the general population hostage.
The Trump administration’s decision has been widely criticized, from parties as diverse as retired General Joseph Votel, former commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, to International Rescue Committee Director David Miliband, who called the FTO designation an act of “pure diplomatic vandalism.” As of this writing, private-sector food suppliers are already pulling out of the Yemeni market for fear of legal repercussions. As a country that imports 90% of its food, this is a potential death sentence for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, and senior UN aid officials state that they cannot fill the void. President Biden should act immediately and decisively to repeal this designation and allow the resumption of commerce and humanitarian aid.
Beyond revoking the FTO designation, President Biden and Vice President Harris should seek to expand access for aid across Yemen and increase U.S. contributions. This includes ensuring that aid can be properly delivered in the context of peace negotiations by pressuring warring parties to lift obstructions and allow humanitarian aid workers access to affected populations, regardless of which party has territorial control. Although Secretary Pompeo touted the Trump administration’s provision of $630 million in aid to Yemen in 2020, the administration refused to engage in USAID activities that benefited the 80% of the population in Houthi-controlled territories. In 2020, a lack of funding crippled humanitarian response in Yemen — the international community fell over $1 billion short of the $3.2 billion needed to cover necessary aid, forcing the UN to reduce or discontinue 15 out of their 41 programs in Yemen. The new administration should considerably increase, even double, this commitment in 2021 to ameliorate a crisis that U.S. support has exacerbated and that the FTO designation may severely worsen.
Additionally, the Biden-Harris administration should impose an immediate moratorium on U.S. support for the Saudi effort in Yemen. President Biden should inform the Saudi government that the United States will not initiate any Foreign Military Sales or approve the license of direct commercial sales to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, regardless of whether or not the equipment will be used in Yemen. This should include any ongoing logistical or intelligence support. By threatening to cut off the supply of spare parts and logistical support to the campaign, the new administration can effectively ground the Saudi Air Force.
After heading off starvation and ending U.S. involvement in the war, the Biden-Harris administration must pursue a political settlement that recognizes power realities in Yemen. The war is much more than a simple proxy conflict driven by regional powers, and fighting will continue even with an end to Saudi involvement, but there are no realistic prospects for resolution if the Gulf States continue to fan the flames. To pressure the Saudi-led coalition to the table, the United States should condition future arms sales on a change in Saudi and Emirati behavior. Desired changes include negotiating in earnest for a political settlement to the war in Yemen, committing to protecting human rights and preventing civilian casualties in ongoing/future military operations, and vowing to abide by end-use agreements that prohibit the transfer of purchased munitions to any third party, as appears to have occurred in the case of weapons transfers to Al Qaeda groups.
Any settlement will require a delicate diplomatic process, and it is beyond the scope of this article to outline such an agreement’s parameters. A resolution to the conflict will likely include a decentralized power structure that takes into account the fragmented nature of Yemen and the multitude of parties that lack the power to win the conflict militarily but have adequate strength to spoil any agreement. The Gulf States and the official government will have to stomach a prominent Houthi role in any future state, but even this will be a better outcome for them than the status quo, which allows the Iranians to wage asymmetric warfare against the Saudis to the last Yemeni, with no end in sight. The Saudi military has been exposed in this conflict as a paper tiger, and the Kingdom appears to be looking for an exit. Such an exit could entail at least tacit concessions from Iran as well. We do not pretend this is a simple matter. Clearly, this would be a heavy diplomatic lift, but it could serve as a way to defuse broader regional tensions that would make all regional states more secure.
Finally, the new administration must consider how to shape a just, lasting peace in Yemen. Beyond the flow of crucial development aid and governance support, the U.S. government must champion accountability. As suggested by human rights and security experts Priyanka Motaparthy and Osamah Alfakih, the United States must stop shielding Saudi Arabia from legal accountability for its actions in Yemen. Should the United States rejoin the Human Rights Council, it should do so with accountability for war crimes and human rights violations in Yemen at the top of its agenda. This means spearheading full investigations of alleged crimes, accountability for crimes committed by all warring parties, and redress provided to Yemeni victims of all sides in the conflict. Accountability efforts are imperative, because without a redress or justice, the population will struggle to unite, heal, and move forward from this era of senseless violence. Again, we recognize that such an outcome is not politically easy or likely, but as outside observers and U.S. citizens, we should not hesitate to hold the U.S. government accountable to its professed ideals.
Ending the war in Yemen is both an ethical and a strategic imperative. The United States cannot hope to regain its moral authority and reclaim the mantle of international leadership while it remains party to this disgraceful conflict. By backing Saudi efforts, the U.S. has undermined its strategic objectives, provided an opening for Iran, and contributed to immense human suffering. The new administration must right the ship, and swiftly, for there is no plausible military solution to the conflict in sight. Through the recommendations prescribed in this article, the Biden-Harris administration can re-ground U.S. policy toward Yemen in human rights and strategic value.
 The authors support the investigation and believe those who committed war crimes should be brought to justice consistent with the Geneva Conventions.
Elena Crespo is an emerging expert in human rights and defense issues. She is currently finishing her MA in International Policy at Stanford University. Kyle Smith is a former United States Navy officer and is pursuing an MBA and MA in International Policy at Stanford.