Biden needs plan B for Yemen after Houthis likely win


Poor Tim Lenderking. In February, the veteran US diplomat – one of the State Department’s best and brightest hands in the Middle East – shot the short straw and was appointed the Biden administration’s special envoy to Yemen. Since then, not only has he been entrusted with the unenviable task of negotiating an end to the seven-year war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but he was also responsible for containing the worst humanitarian crisis on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, on both accounts, things are not going well.

Lenderking is not to blame. Successful diplomacy depends on effective leverage, which Washington lacks. Of course, the United States can put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but nowadays Riyadh does not need any persuasion to want to end the war. In fact, in recent years, the Saudis have embarked on what is, by all accounts, good faith talks on the future of Yemen, including with sworn enemy Iran. The problem is with the Houthis, who have always been recalcitrant and now play for time as they progress slowly but steadily on the battlefield. Indeed, the Houthis have little incentive to come to the table when the Hadi government and the forces of its local allies are shattered, insufficiently armed and frequently fight against each other– a series of conditions that the Saudis could not rectify.

The inclination of the Houthis towards a military solution rather than a negotiated one is bearing fruit. Two years after the start of their military campaign in Marib, a strategic governorate named after its capital, the rebels are set to conquer both. The oil-rich region is one of the last key areas in the north contested by the Hadi government and a gateway to Shabwa, another Hadi-owned governorate with significant energy resources and infrastructure. It would be a Pyrrhic victory – the Houthis would have lost thousands of soldiers, many of them children, in the effort – but it would represent a turning point.

Poor Tim Lenderking. In February, the veteran US diplomat – one of the State Department’s best and brightest hands in the Middle East – shot the short straw and was appointed the Biden administration’s special envoy to Yemen. Since then, not only has he been entrusted with the unenviable task of negotiating an end to the seven-year war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but he was also responsible for containing the worst humanitarian crisis on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, on both accounts, things are not going well.

Lenderking is not to blame. Successful diplomacy depends on effective leverage, which Washington lacks. Of course, the United States can put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but nowadays Riyadh does not need any persuasion to want to end the war. In fact, in recent years, the Saudis have embarked on what is, by all accounts, good faith talks on the future of Yemen, including with sworn enemy Iran. The problem is with the Houthis, who have always been recalcitrant and now play for time as they progress slowly but steadily on the battlefield. Indeed, the Houthis have little incentive to come to the table when the Hadi government and the forces of its local allies are shattered, insufficiently armed and frequently fight against each other– a series of conditions that the Saudis could not rectify.

The inclination of the Houthis towards a military solution rather than a negotiated one is bearing fruit. Two years after the start of their military campaign in Marib, a strategic governorate named after its capital, the rebels are set to conquer both. The oil-rich region is one of the last key areas in the north contested by the Hadi government and a gateway to Shabwa, another Hadi-owned governorate with significant energy resources and infrastructure. It would be a Pyrrhic victory – the Houthis would have lost thousands of soldiers, many of them children, in the effort – but it would represent a turning point.

If they defeat the Saudi-backed Yemeni National Army in one of its last major strongholds in the north and take control of Yemen’s energy hub, the Houthis would have essentially won the war. For Riyadh, Washington and the Yemeni people, this represents the worst case scenario. Even if the war were to end, the humanitarian situation would remain critical, with two-thirds of Yemen’s 30 million citizens continuing to face famine and depending on the United Nations World Food Program for their daily subsistence. Meanwhile, Iranian proxies will control another Arab country and Saudi Arabia will remain vulnerable to missile and drone attacks from its southern neighbor.

Yemen is another hellish problem for the Biden administration. As with Afghanistan, the US government will likely soon be faced with the challenge of yet another failed state led by a militant Islamist organization with millennial delusions, even though the Houthis are nominally Shia.

The potential consequences are considerable. Not only could the Houthis persist in militarily targeting US allies in the Gulf, but if the fragile Saudi coalition loses the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah and the rest of the Red Sea coast, the Houthis could also more easily disrupt the over 6 million barrels of oil and petroleum products per day passing through one of the main choke points of the world, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. In addition, the Houthis are refusing to allow repair or disposal of Yemen’s aging single-hull tanker anchored as a floating oil storage 5 miles from the coast, which is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. If the 45-year-old ship sank, a million barrels of oil could flow into the Red Sea, restricting access to the port, affecting desalination plants and freshwater supplies to 10 million people, and interrupting fishing, further aggravating the humanitarian crisis.

There is no good solution in Yemen. Like the Trump and Obama administrations before it, the current White House has tried unsuccessfully to coax the parties into a negotiated solution. The key now is to shape the layout of what will almost inevitably be the first Iran-dominated state in the Arabian Peninsula in several centuries.

For better or worse, chances are zero that the Biden administration will attempt to prevent a total victory for the Houthi, either by working with the Saudis to better arm and organize the Hadi government and its local allies, or by ordering the US military to intervene directly. After the likely end of the war, it will therefore fall on the United States to contain Iranian misdeeds in Houthi-controlled Yemen, protect ships in the Red Sea, and blunt the Houthis. territorial ambitions in Saudi Arabia.

Despite US President Joe Biden’s obvious antipathy to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first order of business will be to strengthen the kingdom’s defensive capabilities. Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has dramatically improved its ability to counter the threat from Houthi missiles and drones. But to continue doing so, Riyadh will need a US commitment to replenish its defensive arsenal, including the Patriot anti-missile batteries and anti-aircraft missiles used to target incoming drones.

Another step is for Biden to put the Houthis back on the list of foreign terrorist organizations, a designation he revoked upon taking office. While the status of the Houthis is a matter of debate, I think then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right when he officially called them terrorists – the group intentionally bombs hospitals, recruits and deploys child soldiers, and on December 30, 2020, attempted to kill all members of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. But while the terrorist designation may have met the criteria, it’s unclear whether it ultimately impacted the group’s behavior or limited its finances.

Beyond bilateral defensive assistance to the Saudis, the Biden administration should quickly, now, in anticipation of the end of the war, establish a multilateral Red Sea security mechanism to ban illicit arms shipments, stop human and other trafficking; and prevent harassment of seafarers, including landmines, at the southern end of the Red Sea. While touted as a broad international effort to tackle all of the security concerns related to global shipping in and around the Gulf of Aden – in other words, without framing it as a Yemen-specific mission targeting only the Houthis and Iran – the initiative could gain ground. . To this end, the administration should consider whether the functions of the existing anti-piracy mission known as Combined Task Force 151 could be extended.

Perhaps more importantly, to prevent Iran from completing its plan to recreate a Hezbollah-like entity on Saudi Arabia’s southern front once the Houthis take control, the Biden administration will need to reinvigorate. the 2015 UN arms embargo against Yemen. This will require continued and additional maritime interdiction efforts as well as the enforcement of the air traffic embargo to prevent the smuggling of advanced Iranian military equipment. Notwithstanding the Biden administration’s efforts to rebuild a better nuclear deal with Iran, putting teeth in the UN arms embargo may also force Washington to sanction or otherwise penalize Tehran for continuing to provide his agent of destabilizing weapons.

If the Biden administration fails, the risk is not only that increasingly advanced weapons with Iranian components will be pointed from Yemen to Riyadh. Concerned about the intentions of the Houthis and Iranians, the Israelis have twice deployed Patriot and Iron Dome missile defense batteries this year against potential missiles and drones from Yemen.

It is always possible that the Hadi government will unite with the Yemeni factions opposed to the Houthis to launch a counteroffensive, that the Saudis will start aggressively arming the Yemenis in Marib to give them a chance to win, otherwise the fortunes will be drastically reversed. . But the likely outcome is that Washington’s adversaries will win this war – and sooner rather than later. Given the grim trajectory, it is time for the Biden administration to come up with a Plan B to fight a Yemen controlled by Iranian proxies.


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