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Biden decision to stop support of Saudi-led war in Yemen greeted with cautious relief

“A step towards life. I miss life a lot,” said one official with a Yemen-based human rights group.
Image: Sanaa, Yemen.
The site of a Saudi-led airstrike in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. More than six years since the war began, experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people in the country.Hani Mohammed / AP file

For years, the Saudi-led military campaign ravaged Yemen with the support of the United States.

Now aid groups and some Yemenis and Washington lawmakers are welcoming President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that that support would end as a crucial step to ceasing the conflict, and with it what many consider the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But some stressed that more needed to be done — and urgently — to end the war-torn country’s suffering.

“My heart is beating, not for the announcement itself but for thinking of it is a huge step towards a real peace agreement in Yemen between all parties to the conflict,” Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of the Yemen-based organization Mwatana for Human Rights, said in a tweet.

“A step towards life. I miss life a lot.”

While it is not the first move that Biden has made to distance Washington from the Saudi-led war, it still may not signal a wider rupture with Riyadh.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, the kingdom said it supported a political solution to the Yemen crisis and welcomed the United States’ emphasis on supporting diplomatic efforts to end the war.

“The Kingdom seeks to move with brotherly Yemen towards stability and development,” the kingdom said.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa Program at the international affairs think tank Chatham House, said it would be easy to assume that the announcement was a negative shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but that in actual fact helping to facilitate the end of the war in Yemen is something Saudi Arabia also wants.

The conflict — which pits the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government and its supporters in a Saudi-led military coalition — has proven costly for Riyadh and is lasting far longer than was expected, she said.

“They are suing for peace at this point,” she added.

More than six years since the conflict began, 80 percent of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance and experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Since 2015, more than 112,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the violence.

“Thousands of children have been killed or injured through targeting of civilians by all parties to the conflict, and American-made weapons have contributed to the violence,” Save the Children said in a statement in response to Biden’s announcement. The move Thursday was a critical step to saving children’s lives, the president of the group added.

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But Osamah Alfakih, director of communications at Mwatana, a rights group, warned that the announcement would not see fewer Yemenis killed overnight.

“The end of casualties is going to happen when there’s a political agreement,” he said from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, currently controlled by the Houthis. While the news was “huge” and something for which Yemenis had waited a long time, Alfakih said it was not enough on its own.

For years, U.S. lawmakers and international rights groups have pushed the U.S. government to end its support for the Saudi-led campaign.

In 2019, President Donald Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end U.S. military assistance, as well as three other measures aimed at blocking more than $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On assuming office last month, the Biden administration pressed pause on big-ticket arms sales to both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. As a presidential candidate Biden also pledged to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with Riyadh, which had enjoyed an especially warm relationship with the Trump administration.

On Thursday, however, Biden indicated that the U.S. may continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia for defensive purposes and said Washington would help the kingdom defend itself.

Vakil, of Chatham House, said it was clear Biden was going to take a different approach toward the kingdom but that didn’t mean abandoning the relationship.

Saudi Arabia, seen as a leader in the Sunni Arab world, has long been an important ally of the United States in the region, cooperating on counterterrorism, acting as a bulwark against Iran and presiding over crucial oil reserves.

“It’s a relationship that’s historical and strategic and considered of value to the United States,” she said.

Alfakih of Mwatana stressed that there was more to be done in Yemen. If Washington wants to prove that there was a change in approach toward Yemen, it should push for a political agreement and support efforts to bring accountability for those who committed violations on all sides of the conflict as well as reparations for victims, he added.

“People have raised their expectations to see an end to this armed conflict," Alfakih said. "Now the most important part is to translate this announcement into actions.”