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Marib Battle and Biden’s Yemen Policy: A New Phase or Another Escalation?

Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, America’s foreign policy in Yemen has been formed around three main objectives: ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention, removing the Houthis from the Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), and returning to an active policy of mediation in the region, attempting to end the conflict through diplomacy and compromise.

Biden’s Diplomatic Initiative

Under President Trump, Yemen’s ambassador was based in Saudi Arabia, and the Trump administration’s Yemen policy was very close (though not identical) to Saudi Arabia’s. Similarly, the Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice President, initiated American support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in 2015. In contrast to both his predecessors, Biden seems determined to redefine U.S. interests in the war. On February 4th, the forty-sixth president appointed a new envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking – widely regarded as a sign that he was serious about finding a political solution to the decade-long conflict.

Biden’s position is similar to those of Paris, Berlin, and London. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, British FM Dominic Raab, and German FM Heiko Maas announced their support for a larger plan to lessen the tension in the Gulf region, including ending the war in Yemen if possible. The fact that the U.S. and its European allies regard solving the Yemen conflict as part of the de-escalation with Iran speaks toward Iran’s role in the region and the importance of restarting diplomatic discourse with Tehran. 

Escalating Violence in Marib

While a political solution seems closer than any other attempts for the last two years, a renewed bout of intense violence suggests that parties are trying to gain victories on the ground, in order to use them as leverage in upcoming negotiations. On February 7th, a Houthi offensive was launched in Marib, the last stronghold of the Saudi-backed government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. After months of relative peace, this battle could decisively change the outlook on the ground for the warring parties, and shape the future of the country and its political alignment.

The capture of Marib is significant for the Houthis for two reasons. First, it is Yemen’s richest province in oil and gas, and would secure a much-needed source of revenue for the group, giving it some measure of parity with President Hadi’s faction (and its rich backers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi). Second, capturing Marib would represent a major Houthi victory over Saudi Arabia and its allies, and would cement the group’s position as the strongest faction within Yemen. This, in turn, would enable it to play the largest role within the future government – conditional, of course, on U.S. acquiescence. To pressure Saudi Arabia, the Houthis have also escalated their drone and missile attacks on Riyadh and other Saudi cities.

Moreover, a Houthi victory in Marib would be a catastrophe for President Hadi and his government, and might lead to the erosion of Hadi and his government’s role in the country’s peace negotiations. The city is President Hadi’s final stronghold in the north; with Marib taken, the Houthis’ control over northern Yemen would be significantly stronger. With the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) controlling a large portion of the south – including Aden, Hadi’s nominal capital – and little significant territory in between, Hadi would effectively become a president without a country. In such a case, Yemen would almost certainly end up divided between an Iran-aligned Houthi state in the north and a UAE-friendly STC government in the south, mirroring Yemen’s pre-1990 division. Saudi Arabia, which wishes to avoid this outcome, has intensified its support for Hadi’s forces in Marib, launching scores of airstrikes on advancing Houthi units.

Humanitarian and Geopolitical Concerns

In all likelihood, Biden’s main reasons for pushing for an immediate end to the war have little to do with Middle Eastern geopolitics and more to do with the human rights violations committed by all sides in the war. As in all conflicts, the largest price has not been paid by the Saudis or the Iranians, but by the Yemenis themselves, who have now lived through a decade of violence, widespread starvation, and two separate epidemics. For this reason, the United States has included Yemen in its agenda to de-escalate with Iran, and has pressured its allies in Riyadh to end the war.

For now, even if the push for a political solution succeeds and the various Yemeni factions agree to begin a national dialogue, any formation of a new Yemeni government will face a serious challenge related to its alignment in the regional Saudi-Iranian conflict. The Houthis’ ties to Iran will mean that any future state substantially controlled by the Houthis will likely pursue a pro-Iran, anti-Saudi foreign policy. Since this would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh will likely veto any settlement that gives the Houthis control of Yemen’s government. On the other hand, the Houthis will not agree to any agreement that does not give them a substantial stake in the government, making an agreement that satisfies all sides extremely difficult to achieve. One way or another, regardless of the outcome of the battle in Marib, the Yemen conflict is likely far from over.

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