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Difficult Bets: The US’ Containment Strategy and Resolving the Yemen Conundrum

Despite its criticism of the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, which have recently escalated to an unprecedented level, the US State Department defended its request to the Congress to remove the Houthi Movement from the list of terrorists to resume humanitarian relief operations in Yemen access to which the Houthis are obstructing. This has been proven in many UN and international reports.

The reports indicated the inclusion of the Houthis in future political settlement processes, in light of the appointment of Tim Lenderking as a special US envoy to Yemen. In exchange, the American administration affirms its efforts to strengthen Saudi defenses to block the attacks coming from Yemen. The United States Central Command launched a joint training program with the Saudi Arabian army on intercepting drones. 

In general, the current US attitude towards Yemen indicates that it is trying to contain the Yemen crisis by stopping the war due to the difficult humanitarian repercussions. The Yemen crisis is the most tragic humanitarian crisis taking place in the world. 

The administration is separating between the war and the settlement process, considering that the immediate entitlement to stop the war will only solve the humanitarian dilemma without solving the political crisis between the legitimate government and the Houthi rebels. The challenge could take a much longer time due to the complications of the Yemeni case as a civil war with regional dimensions. This is a different outlook from the contexts put forward by the US administration, whether that of Barack Obama or Donald Trump, because the first one depended on a political settlement strategy as an entry point to stop the war, while the latter adopted the policy of putting massive amounts of pressure on the Houthis from the perspective that the Yemeni war is a proxy war led by Iran through the Houthis against its Gulf opponents, especially Saudi Arabia. 

The containment strategy

Washington’s adoption of a containment strategy is based on its assessment of the Yemeni situation, which includes, for example: 

Ending an Endless War: Seven years after its outbreak, the US Administration’s evaluation shows that the war in Yemen seems like it’s endless, due to the involved parties’ ability to continue without ever stopping. On the contrary, the battle curve is continuously increasing, which reflects how the different parties involved in the battle can develop their attacking capabilities. This is why none of the parties involved are capable of achieving an actual breakthrough that may resolve the war. As a result, neither side may end up victorious or defeated. 

This is similar to the attempts to reach a settlement through multiple rounds in many capitals, such as Geneva, Kuwait and Stockholm. There hasn’t been real success in the settlement process to reach understandings and political deals. In a sense, both tracks, the containment and settlement, have equal chances, which exacerbates and the Yemen crisis, making choosing one option over the other unreliable and difficult, with no guaranteed results. 

Attempts to restrict regional involvement in the conflict: By eliminating the military forces from the Yemeni arena, the US administration has called upon Tehran to stop militarily supporting the Houthis, as they represent a threat to its interests and those of its Gulf allies. It appears as an incentive to resume communication with Tehran regarding resolving the nuclear file crisis and sanctions. 

On the other hand, Washington is putting pressure on the coalition to end military operations in Yemen, including ending the logistical support for the coalition, freezing US arms and weapon deals and pushing the European allies to do the same. In return, Washington provides an incentive to the coalition forces by taking into consideration their concerns about the Iranian threat in the region, in addition to ameliorating the Saudi military defenses, since they are the main victims of the Houthi attacks. In other words, this means that the file will be dealt with as a border security file, and it reflects, furthermore, that there’s no possible guarantee to stop the attacks in a sustainable way. 

Managing the political crisis: It’s probable the US administration doesn’t have a political solution to the Yemeni crisis, even with the appointment of a special envoy. Despite Lenderking’s visit to Riyadh and discussing the possibility of a political solution, it’s still too early to assume there is a clear vision in this regard. Resultantly, in the short or medium term, the US administration may be looking to manage the crisis politically, through the role of the US envoy. However; on the long-term, it’s possible that the efforts to end the war may contribute to moving forward with a settlement process, while in partnership with the United Nation’s efforts and through mediation with regional powers, and pushing them to transfer the surplus military involvement in the Yemeni arena to mediation efforts for the sake of appeasement followed by a settlement. 

Resolving the challenge

The US approach to the Yemeni crisis involves solving Yemeni challenges. The repercussions of the humanitarian tragedy resulting from the war in Yemen are deniable, yet the means to stop the war is still a political decision that emanates primarily from the political data related to the current administration’s stance, and investing in humanitarian improvements and stopping the war internally, although the US in not directly involved in the war as it was in Iraq, for example.

The US abandoned the pressure card on the Houthis with its decision to cancel its designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group without anything in return. The Houthis sufficed with welcoming the decision as a “correction of an abusive situation”. It is not accurate to claim that the US decision will be met by the Houthis backing down on obstructing humanitarian aid because the militia deranged the arrival of humanitarian flights to Sanaa airport at the beginning of this year due to the suspension of “bilateral services”, within the framework of understandings with the international mission, to allow it to reach the oil derivatives, through Hodaydah Port, in exchange for the entry of humanitarian aid. Likewise, the Houthis will, according to international reports, be forced to draw back. Since the militia uses a percentage of that aid and redirects it to war efforts, the lockdown of Sanaa airport was temporary. The US State Department realized that considering the current escalation on the Marib front, two million Yemenis will be internally displacement. Hence, even lifting the obstacles to delivering the humanitarian aid is not the solution, as along as the US administration doesn’t have the cards to pressure the Houthis to stop the war first. 

Even on the regional level, the US has withdrawn all of its support for the coalition in the war in Yemen and called on Iran to withdraw its military aid to the Houthis. However, the US doesn’t actually have any tools to put pressure on Iran to stop their weapon supply into Yemen, as their tools for monitoring and control are still very limited. According to the current escalating events, it seems that the Houthis possess a strategic stock of these weapons, and they are betting on this to divert the course of the battle from the permanent attrition of the coalition to achieving a qualitative advance on the strategic front in the battle as a preemptive tactic to state their terms in the future. 

Lastly, US President Joe Biden referred to the power of American diplomacy repeatedly during his speech at the headquarters of the State Department. Yemen was the focus of the speech to the extent that it was prime over other files of more importance to US foreign policy. The power of the US diplomacy is still being tested, nonetheless. There are doubts over the efficacy of the containment strategy the US is adopting in Yemen due to the absence of the tools of power that can push the parties involved to resolve the crisis. It is probable the US administration will change its current stance when the parties won’t respond to its means of resolve. Something magnanimous has to occur to form an incentive for the parties involved to resolve the crisis.

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