President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will end support for a grinding five-year Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen that has deepened suffering in the Arabian peninsula's poorest country, calling the move part of restoring a US emphasis on diplomacy, democracy and human rights.
"The war has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe," Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as president. "This war has to end." The United Nations estimates the war in Yemen has already caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.
The Yemen reversal is one of a series of changes Biden laid out that he said would be part of a course correction for US foreign policy. That's after President Donald Trump — and some Republican and Democratic administrations before his — often aided authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability.
Yemen, the biblical kingdom of Sheba, has one of the world's oldest constantly occupied cities — the more than 2000-year-old Sanaa — along with mud brick skyscrapers and hauntingly beautiful landscapes of steep, arid mountains. But decades of Yemeni misgovernment have worsened factional divisions and halted development, and years of intervention by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran have prolonged the humanitarian crisis.
The Obama administration in 2015 gave its approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting the Houthi rebels, who had seized Sanaa and other territory and were sporadically launching missiles into Saudi Arabia.
US targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia's command-and-control centre was supposed to minimise civilian casualties in airstrikes. But Saudi-led strikes since then have killed numerous Yemeni civilians, including schoolboys on a bus and fishermen in their boats. Survivors display fragments showing the bombs to be American-made.
The Saudi-led campaign, joined primarily by the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf country, has only "perpetuated a civil war in Yemen" and "led to a humanitarian crisis", national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier today. US officials have already notified senior officials for those two countries to explain the rationale for the withdrawal of support, he said.
The stalled war has failed to dislodge the Houthis and is helping deepen hunger and poverty. International rights experts say both the Gulf countries and Houthis have committed severe rights abuses.
The weeks-old Biden administration has made clear that shifting its stance toward the Yemen war, and toward Saudi Arabia over the Yemen offensive and other rights abuses, was a priority. Other measures have included pausing some arm sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and a review of the Trump administration's categorisation of the Houthis as a terror group. Critics say the designation hinders delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemenis.
The US Congress passed a resolution to end US military assistance in Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen back in 2019, but President Donald Trump vetoed the measure. Trump argued that the resolution would harm bilateral relations and interfere with his constitutional power as commander in chief. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement at the time, saying: "The conflict in Yemen is a horrific humanitarian crisis that challenges the conscience of the entire world. Yet the President has cynically chosen to contravene a bipartisan, bicameral vote of the Congress and perpetuate America's shameful involvement in this heartbreaking crisis."
Biden is also today announcing the choice of Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen. A person familiar with the matter confirmed the selection, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.
Lenderking has been a deputy assistant secretary of state in the agency's Middle East section. A career foreign service member, he has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
While withdrawing support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, the Biden administration also says it intends to help the kingdom boost its defences against any further attacks from Houthis or outside adversaries. The assurance is seen as part of an effort to persuade Saudi Arabia and other combatants to end the conflict overall.