The new American administration has been taking serious and intense steps to end the crisis in Yemen and end the escalation of the Iran-backed Houthi militias on civilians in Yemen and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.
However, several analysts and officials are urging Joe Biden’s administration against being lenient with the Houthis, calling on him to instead increase pressure on the militias that are still relentlessly waging their war on Yemen.
Republican Senator Michael McCaul tweeted last week: “Over the past several weeks, I called for the administration to apply more pressure on the Houthis to end the violent conflict in Yemen.”
He welcomed the US sanctions against two senior Houthi leaders for procuring weapons from Iran and attacking civilians.
"While this action is appreciated, I urge the administration to continue applying pressure to all parties so a negotiated solution to end this devastating war can occur,” he added.
Kirsten Fontenrose, of the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the situation in Yemen was deteriorating because the Houthis have been emboldened by the recent decisions by the Biden administration and their recent military success in Marib. At the same time, the Houthis believe they have no reason to turn to negotiations or agree to a political settlement that could reflect their actual numbers among the people.
In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, she said any political understanding the American administration may now reach could exaggerate the Houthis’ actual representation on the ground. Moreover, she noted that it would only be a matter of a handful of months before the agreement is rejected by other Yemenis.
An agreement would not put the Saudis at ease or offer them a sense that the US wants to protect their interests in Yemen, she added. At the same, they trust newly-appointed US envoy Tim Lenderking, but they still feel that Biden’s openness to Iran over a new nuclear deal means Washington is ready to abandon Saudi security for the sake of reaching an agreement with the Houthis that would also please Tehran.
Fontenrose, who had worked at the White House and Department of State during the terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said Lenderking is leading international talks aimed at reaching a political solution in Yemen. She added that he is respected in the region and boasts a great working relationship with UN envoy Martin Griffiths. The Houthis, on the other hand, are doing nothing to forge long-term ties with him because they were not part of influential legitimate Yemeni politicians over the decades during which Lenderking was involved in diplomacy with the Gulf.
Lenderking is aware that ending the war in Yemen is a priority for the American administration and that its end will be beneficial to Saudi Arabia and Iran alike in terms of their reputation in Washington, Fontenrose said. She remarked, however, that the administration’s recent actions left him with few carrots and sticks to motivate the Houthis to end their push in Marib and agree on a political arrangement that is supported by the rest of Yemen.
The administration must obtain from Iran a drive to end the war in Yemen, which Tehran is not at all seeking, she went to say. The strategy must also force the Houthis to offer concessions in recognition of the favorable American moves towards them, but they are not.
Fontenrose criticized the strategy for presenting several favors to the Houthis without asking them for anything in return. It removed their terror designation, ended US support to the Saudi-led Arab coalition and froze offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis responded to these positive moves by attacking Riyadh, forging ahead in the offensive on Marib and preventing UN inspectors from accessing the Safer tanker, which risks an environmental disaster off Hodeidah. The US abandoned most of its influence before even kicking off political negotiations.
Fontenrose said the US could persuade Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to join a non-aggression pact with Iran. Such a deal should demand that Iran cease its support to the Houthis in exchange for assertions that Saudi Arabia would request the US to reduce the number of its forces, which may perhaps lead to an end to support to Iranian opposition groups.
Political analyst at the Atlantic Council, Carmiel Arbit, meanwhile, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Biden administration’s decision to revoke the Houthis’ terror designation helped create a space for not only relief efforts, but diplomacy. She said the move reflected a more pragmatic, possibly even sympathetic, approach, towards Iran compared to the maximum pressure policy of the former administration.
What next? Arbit said that after six years of bloody conflict, there appears to be no simple solution to the crisis. Moreover, it is growing increasingly difficult to reunite the country. On the short term, relief efforts must be a priority for each of the US and international community. The Biden administration will likely approach Yemen the same way it does Iran whereby it will search for opportunities to ease tensions between Arab Gulf allies with Iran, while at the same time resort to punitive measures, such as targeted sanctions, and seek to secure small gains wherever they may be.
In an article to the Council on Foreign Relations, former US Special Representative for Iran, Elliot Abrams said the Trump administration’s decision to call the Houthis terrorists is attributed to their repeated acts of terrorism. “And the main critique of the Biden administration’s revocation of that decision is equally simple: the Houthis have long committed, and continue to commit, acts of terror. They should be designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) because they are an FTO.”
“The motivation for the Biden decision is clear: the FTO designation may have a negative humanitarian impact in Yemen. It may also be that the administration concluded the terrorism designation would make negotiating with the Houthis more complex, thereby hindering efforts to end the war,” he added.
“But if one’s central goal is to end the war, what is the impact of this FTO reversal regarding the Houthis? Is it clear that they will react by changing their behavior and stopping acts of terror? Wish Mr. Lenderking good luck, for he has been handed a most difficult file,” he continued.
“Logic suggests an alternative view: that the Houthis will be less inclined to negotiate, especially because the administration’s decision comes only days after its statement that it would no longer support offensive military operations by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. If I were a Houthi leader, I might conclude ‘I am winning. The Americans want out. They’ve walked away from the Saudis and reversed the terrorism designation even though my own behavior has not changed. Why negotiate?’ If that is right, the Biden administration ought to be thinking hard about ways to change the incentive structure it has backed into,” Abrams said.