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US to end support for Saudi offensive operations in the war in Yemen

22 February 2021 Mr. Ludovico Carlino

US President Joe Biden announced on 5 February an end to US support for Saudi offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including some specific arms sales to Saudi Arabia, though it is not yet clear what these will be.

Biden's remarks suggest that the new US administration's priority in Yemen is to reduce the impact of the Saudi-led intervention on the civilian population. Despite the change in posture, President Biden stated that the United States would continue to support Saudi Arabia defending its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and its people from missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks from "Iranian supplied forces", an implicit reference to the Yemen-based Ansar Allah movement (better known as the Houthis). Biden also stated that counter-terrorism operations targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) would not end.

Since the announcement, the US administration has released no details on what support to Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen it plans to end. It is likely that the US will meaningfully reduce sales of air-to-ground munitions, refuelling aircraft, and other logistic and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia, and seek reassurances from Saudi Arabia that these weapons will not be used against civilians in Yemen, which has attracted strong criticism from rights groups and international organisations. The US will also most likely continue to provide Saudi Arabia with air-defence systems and support targeted operations in Yemen aimed at degrading Houthi ballistic missile and UAV capabilities, including increasing US Navy patrols in the Red Sea aimed at intercepting weapons supplies from Iran to the Houthis.

Biden's announcement is likely to be followed by a review of the Houthi's designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by former President Trump. President Biden stated that the US would seek a more active role in ending the conflict in Yemen and named career diplomat Timothy Lenderking (former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia) as special envoy to Yemen. The US administration's next move will likely be a review of the Houthi's FTO designation, with the State Department having already suspended sanctions against the movement until 26 February.

The US strategy is likely to remove the designation and maintain targeted sanctions on senior and mid-ranking Houthi military leaders, but cancel those targeting senior political figures, especially those involved in previous negotiations, with the aim of keeping a diplomatic channel open and, eventually, isolating hardcore elements and dividing the movement.

The reduction in US support for the Saudi coalition, and potential removal of the Houthi's FTO designation, are unlikely to improve the prospects of a negotiated end to the war in Yemen. The internationally recognised Yemeni government currently based in Aden remains firm in its commitment to restoring its sovereignty over all Yemeni territory, as provided by UN Resolution 2216 (2015), which is the legal basis of the Saudi intervention. The Houthi have, however, almost full control of northern Yemen, and are unlikely to accept any compromise agreement that does not include the recognition of their territorial gains. Instead, IHS Markit assesses that they are likely to push to further expand the territory under their control. The movement has exploited previous ceasefire agreements to regroup, and is likely to consider the reduced US support for the Saudi-led coalition as a new opportunity to escalate against Yemeni forces and continue to target Saudi territory. Further Houthi cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia and offensive operations targeting Saudi coalition vessels and commercial shipping in the Red Sea are also likely, and would test the US's stated commitment to defend Saudi sovereignty.

Posted 22 February 2021 by Ludovico Carlino, Principal Analyst, Country Risk – Middle East and North Africa, IHS Markit

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