President Biden, as he promised during his campaign, announced sweeping changes on the U.S. policy on Yemen. He has now vowed to end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, name Tim Lenderking as the new envoy to oversee the U.S. diplomatic mission to try to end the civil war there, and has ordered the State Department to review the Trump administration’s decision to label the Houthi rebels a terrorist organization. 

“This war has to end,” Biden said during his first foreign policy address as the American president on February 4th. “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen including relevant arms sales.”

“At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks and UAV strikes and other threats from Iranian supplied [Houthi] forces in multiple countries,” Biden said. “We are going to continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, Iraq, and Regional Multilateral Affairs Tim Lenderking will head up the U.S. diplomatic mission to end the war in Yemen.

“I have asked my Middle East team to ensure our support for the United Nations’ initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks,” President Biden said.

“Tim’s diplomacy will be bolstered by USAID working to ensure humanitarian aid is reaching the Yemeni people who are suffering an unendurable devastation,” Biden said.

The UN has stated that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the worst in the world. There are tens of thousands dead and over 16 million Yemeni men, women, and children are living in severe and worsening food insecurity.

Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made it clear that he wants to reverse the designation of the Houthi rebels, also known as Ansarallah, “immediately.”

Blinken told the news media that he had “deep concern about the designation that was made is that at least on its surface it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it.”

“Ansarallah, sometimes known as the Houthis, bears significant responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe and insecurity in Yemen. We strongly believe that Ansarallah needs to change its behavior,” a spokesman for the State Department said to The Hill. “At the same time, we must also ensure that we are not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance.”

The Houthi rebels, who have been supported by Iran, have launched missiles at Saudi Arabia indiscriminately rocketing civilians. They are also using child soldiers and conducting summary executions. Houthi leaders have denied receiving Iranian support. However, in early 2017, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Quds Force, met with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to look for ways to what was described as “empowering” the Houthis.

“At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support,” a senior Iranian official close to Soleimani reported to Reuters in 2017.

In August 2018, IRGC commander Nasser Shabani was quoted by the Fars News Agency, the semi-official Iranian news agency, as saying, “We, [IRGC], told Yemenis [(Houthi rebels)] to strike two Saudi oil tankers, and they did it.” He then promptly called the reports of Iranian-Houthi collusion “Western lies.”

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have supported the internationally recognized government of Yemen. They too have been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians. The U.S. has supported the joint Saudi/U.A.E. effort but now that support will end. Congress had in 2019 tried to end the assistance, but then-President Trump vetoed that. 

The American cessation of offensive operations, however, doesn’t extend to operations against al-Qaeda.

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Several former detainees from Guantanamo Bay have joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s local affiliate, after being released. Among them is AQAP’s late deputy leader Said al Shihri and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi a current senior official of the group.

On Thursday, speaking to the press about the end of offensive operations support in Yemen, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “It does not extend to actions against AQAP, which are actions we undertake in service of protecting the homeland and protecting American interests in the region and allies and partners.”

“It extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis,” Sullivan added.

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