After six years of a brutal conflict that’s killed more than 230,000 people in Yemen, the Biden administration announced on Feb. 4 that it would end U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE-led war there. Often viewed as a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the oil rich monarchies intervened in Yemen after Houthi rebels, seen as protectors of the Shia Muslim minority, seized control of large portions of the impoverished nation in 2014, including the capital Sanaa.
Over the last two years, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress worked to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. In 2019, both the House and Senate passed a historic war powers resolution to end U.S. weapons sales and logistical support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, but the measure was later vetoed by President Trump.
Peace advocates welcomed President Biden’s announcement ending U.S. support for the Yemen war, but many questions remained unanswered such as the administration’s narrowly crafted statement which only withdrew support for Saudi and UAE “offensive operations.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action, who examines the Biden administration’s policy on Yemen and the urgent need to negotiate a diplomatic agreement to end the conflict.
KEVIN MARTIN: What Biden announced last week — which was expected, and we were pressing for this and so we’re glad to see it — was an end for U.S. offensive military support to Saudi Arabia. And then the next day, they said they were going to take the Houthis — which is the group that controls a good part of Yemen now and that is backed by Iran — off the terrorist list, which Mike Pompeo had added them to the terrorism list in his final month or two I think as secretary of state under Trump. So those were good.
The concern though, is that at least they’re going to be reviewing U.S. arm sales to Saudi Arabia, which is long overdue and hopefully also to UAE. And again, the support for this has been weapon sales. It’s been spare parts for airplanes that used to include in-air refueling. That was actually ended in 2018 because of the horrible concerns about the bombings of civilian targets by the Saudi Air Force, but also intelligence sharing. And that can be difficult if the United States continues to share intelligence if, for example, we have intelligence about Iranian arm sales to the Houthis or other intelligence that we might share.
And supposedly we’re not at this point cutting off so-called defensive arm sales. Saudi Arabia has a legitimate concern about rocket attacks from Houthis that have landed on Saudi soil. But the problem is if you’re trying to split hairs between what’s an offensive defensive weapons system, it becomes a very slippery slope and very fungible in terms of some weapons. So, the announcement in and of itself is not a complete withdrawal of U.S. support for the Saudi and UAE slaughter that they’re undergoing in Yemen, but it’s a huge step forward.And some of these details that have to be worked out and specified, and also the diplomatic track of course, has to be strengthened. Martin Griffiths, who is the United Nations mediator envoy for Yemen is actually in Iran talking to the Iranian government. So that’s a good sign. He has been working hard to try to establish ceasefires to lift the blockade by Saudi Arabia of the port of Hudaydah, which is the main port for getting goods into and out of Yemen, especially in terms of humanitarian aid.
So that diplomatic track needs a lot of support as well from the United States and from others in the region. And again, there has to be some tough love on Saudi Arabia that, okay, you’ve been our longtime ally, and you’re the number one purchaser of U.S. weapons from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, etc. But we’re shutting that spigot off because we’re not going to continue to support this slaughter, particularly again, the toll on civilians. It’s the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. And it’s again, something a lot of Americans don’t know about because this is not something the mainstream media covers regularly.
SCOTT HARRIS: Kevin, for listeners who are concerned about the end game of ending this conflict in Yemen, what are some of the things that they should be paying attention to or action they should take to do what they can to pressure the Biden administration to make sure this conflict ends?
KEVIN MARTIN: Right now, as much as we always encourage people to be contacting their members of Congress to support the right policies, Congress has done the right thing twice and it was vetoed by Trump. We don’t think there’s necessarily going to have to be another vote in Congress unless that is needed to push the Biden administration to do the right thing. Members of Congress can push the Biden administration for a total review or a total cutoff of arm sales. One of the things that they are doing is holding up and reviewing arm sales that were agreed to under Trump. So that’s very good. I’m sort of, of two minds about whether the United States should actually be actively involved in diplomacy or are our hands so bloody and our credibility so low that we should stay out of it and just lend our support to the UN effort, which I think is seen as more legitimate. That, you know remains to be seen.
And then, you know, the end game in terms of what happens, it could be something that opens up broader dialogue to end not just this horrible war, but some of the competition for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran and even Saudi Arabia seems to be understanding that that’s a losing proposition for them. They actually sent some kind of lower-level diplomatic messages to Iran last year to see if there weren’t ways that they could talk to each other about some of this carnage that’s going on in the region that’s caused by this, you know, alleged struggle for supremacy in the region. And, that’s where the Sunni versus Shia dynamic comes in, which I think is somewhat overblown at times. So I think for now it’s mostly vigilance and watching details and being ready to weigh in and advocate as needed. It should be the case that the administration now has the tools they need and the support they need to do the right thing.
For more information, visit Peace Action at peaceaction.org.