President Joe Biden announced last week that the U.S. would end support for Saudi-led military offensives in the war-torn nation of Yemen and would work on a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
One day later, the State Department announced its intention to drop the Houthis — an Iranian-backed rebel group that controls most of Yemen — from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs.
The two policy decisions — a major reversal from the Trump administration — were seen by aid and human-rights groups as the first steps toward ending the war in a country the United Nations has described as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and resolving a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
But the end of the war is not yet in sight. Yemen has been devastated by the fighting, which has destroyed hospitals, schools and other critical infrastructure. More than 80 percent of the population survives on humanitarian aid. The U.S. plays an outsize role in this conflict, which is generally seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and holds some power to shepherd the fractured country toward a cease-fire and to re-engage peace talks.
“The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to change the U.S. role in Yemen, to stop fueling and fanning flames of war,” said Sultana Begum, Yemen advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
For the past six years, the Yemeni government, backed by a coalition led by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been waging war against Houthi rebels, who seized the northern half of the country in 2014.
The U.S. has supported the Saudi-led military offensive with weapons and logistical support. In 2019, the UN Human Rights Council released a report finding that Saudi Arabia and the UAE acted with a “pervasive lack of accountability” in Yemen — and that the U.S. did little to stop it. Saudi airstrikes have increased throughout the pandemic, nearly doubling from the year before. Many involved U.S.-made bombs.
Last week, the Biden administration said it would no longer support Saudi-led military offensives in Yemen, including arm sales. In a speech, President Biden also promised to “up our diplomacy to end the war” in Yemen. He called for a cease-fire and said he would restore “long dormant” peace talks, appointing a new envoy, Timothy Lenderking, to oversee the process.
For five years in the northern part of Yemen, the Saudi coalition has also imposed a blockade on Houthi-controlled ports to stop them from receiving weapons. Food, medicine and fuel are often delayed, sometimes for months. Aid organizations feared the Trump administration’s January decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists would pose further restrictions on support and force some organizations to stop working in the area entirely, further deepening the humanitarian crisis.
The Biden administration’s intent to revoke the designations has relieved aid groups, which had already been scrambling to gather enough supplies to support Yemenis amid fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is explored in the new FRONTLINE documentary Yemen’s COVID Cover-Up.
Even so, some aid groups worry that supply companies they rely on for medicine and food may be spooked enough by the Trump administration’s designation to cease operating in Yemen entirely. In its intent to revoke the designation, the Biden administration made clear its concerns about the “reprehensible conduct” of the Houthis, including attacks on civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens, as well as attacks within Saudi Arabia.
“It is still too early to tell what exact impact the designation will have on our work and humanitarian action, in general, in Yemen,” Basheer Al-Selwi, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told FRONTLINE. “But we are concerned that any increased legal or operational risks … may constrain the humanitarian response in Yemen.” In Yemen, the ICRC supports 83 hospitals, among other health-care-related efforts. With the majority of ICRC’s work in the Houthi-controlled north, the terrorist designation would have crippled its operations.
It’s difficult to know what will come next. For now, aid organizations say they are concentrating on supporting those most in need: the 16 million on the brink of famine and the untold numbers now suffering from the coronavirus.
As Makiyah al-Aslami, a Yemeni nurse struggling to keep her clinic running, told FRONTLINE: “All these countries, desperate to find a vaccine. Can’t they find a vaccine that will end this war of ours?”