In his first speech on foreign policy, President Joe Biden announced that his administration was cutting support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen. The president later rescinded the terrorist designation for the Iranian-led Houthi rebels in Yemen so that U.S. humanitarian aid can flow through Houthi areas.
“This war has to end,” Biden said. “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen including relevant arms sales.”
Instead of convincing the Houthis to end the violence, they read the message as Washington being weak and confused. The Houthis and their masters in Tehran responded by escalating the violence to nearly unprecedented levels.
On the ground, the president’s proclamation of withdrawing U.S. support from the Saudi coalition gave the Yemenis the impression that the U.S. was giving the Houthis the green light to renew attacks. And they took advantage of it.
Houthis ramped up their plans to attack the city of Marib which is the site of some of the country’s richest oil fields in the north. Hundreds of fighters on each side have been killed in the violence and the fighting has raged back and forth. Nabeel Khoury a former deputy chief of Mission for the U.S. said that this latest fighting “is a very critical battle.”
“The problem of course is that these short-term gains… could actually derail the new peace process launched by the new U.S. administration.”
Marib province had been largely untouched during the fighting due to its proximity to the Saudi border, until now. It is home to over two million internally displaced persons.
The Saudi-led coalition has conducted a dozen airstrikes in support of the Yemeni government troops trying to hold on to the area.
The Houthis have confirmed that they have launched seven attacks with missiles and drones against Saudi Arabia.
Yahya Saree, a Houthi militias spokesman, confirmed in a statement that the escalation of violence is part of a Houthi military plan called “Operation Fifth Deterrence Balance.” He said that the attacks “continued from Saturday evening until Sunday by using a Zulfiqar ballistic missile and 15 drones.”
Saree added that nine Samad 3 jets targeted “sensitive sites” in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, while six Qasef-2k jets launched strikes on “military sites in the regions of Abha and Khamis Mushait.”
The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is a mouthpiece of the Iranian government, confirmed that the militias acted in accordance with the Iranian agenda to take advantage of the U.S. and EU’s desire to restart nuclear negotiations and were also involved with the attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship off the Yemeni coast late last week.
The Iranian-led militias are ramping up activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and trying to force concessions from the West before any talks take place. They’ve conducted dozens of missile and rocket attacks on bases that house U.S. and coalition forces as well as the American Embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Even the recent airstrike by the U.S. at a checkpoint used by Iranian militias between Iraq and Syria was seen as a weak, defensive response, as the U.S. didn’t hit militias in Iraq but in Syria.
The move by the administration to re-open the files of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi for which then-presidential candidate Biden had vowed to make “pariahs of Saudi Arabia,” gave way to the pragmatism of maintaining one of the U.S. most valuable allies in the region. However, that and the move to cut aid to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has sown distrust in Riyadh and to many Saudis. It signifies that Washington is pushing an agenda of negotiations with Tehran over the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
The administration tried to use a goodwill gesture to restart negotiations. Those overtures were met with the opposite reaction from Iran. And it is doubtful that any events in the near future will change that.