The United States will no longer support “offensive operations” in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, dealing a blow to the credibility of a U.S. partner and delivering a moral victory for U.S. and international activists.
U.S. President Joe Biden made the announcement during a wide-ranging foreign policy speech that declared diplomacy would be “back at the center” of U.S. foreign policy while condemning the war in Yemen as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
Although Biden’s announcement is a victory for activists and politicians who have worked to keep the Yemen war from fading from the president’s priority list, it’s not yet clear what it will mean in practice. As Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer report, U.S. involvement has shrunk in recent years after the United States stopped its policy of refueling Saudi and Emirati warplanes in 2018. Up until Biden’s announcement, it has “continued providing intelligence support to the coalition despite congressional uproar over the American role in the conflict.“
By focusing on only “offensive” moves, Biden gives himself some strategic wiggle room. The president assured Saudi Arabia of continued U.S. help and support, which will likely come in the form of defensive weapons systems designed to block increasingly sophisticated Houthi missile and drone attacks.
Riyadh responds. In their public responses, Saudi Arabian officials sidestepped the substance of Biden’s remarks. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the United States’ commitment, expressed in President Biden’s speech today, to cooperate with the Kingdom in defending its security and territory,” Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said. Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman touted the kingdom as “the number one supporter of Yemen through humanitarian and other assistance.”
The United Arab Emirates, whose own military footprint in Yemen has been reduced to counterterrorism operations (while still supporting the breakaway Southern Transitional Council), sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia. “The UAE ended its military involvement in Yemen in October of last year. Eager to see the war over,” Anwar Gargash, the Emirati foreign affairs minister tweeted, adding that the country had supported multiple peace initiatives.
The peacemaker? As part of his remarks, Biden announced that Timothy Lenderking would lead U.S. efforts in Yemen as its new envoy. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer look at the challenge facing the career foreign service officer.