What Next for Yemen?

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism held a hearing to examine Washington’s policy toward Yemen, as did the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism. Both panels featured Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking, while the Senate hearing also included a second panel that featured testimony from Lisa Grande and Amanda Catanzano of the US Institute for Peace and International Rescue Committee, respectively. Lenderking’s message to both subcommittees was clear and consistent: the United States must lead the effort to ensure that suffering Yemenis have access to robust humanitarian assistance and it must mobilize the international community to secure a negotiated political settlement to the fighting.

Lenderking told the House subcommittee that the Biden Administration has prioritized an end to the Yemen conflict and that he believes this reinvigorated focus will help US efforts to secure a nationwide cease-fire and achieve a higher level of regional and international engagement. Citing what he called an “unusual amount of unanimity” at the UN Security Council, Lenderking was optimistic that the international community is willing and eager to take the necessary steps to realize improvements in the situation on the ground. Ultimately, however, Lenderking was less certain about the motivations and commitments to peace of the two most visible principals in the conflict: Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels. He told the House panel that the administration has received a somewhat positive response from Saudi Arabia about the need to find an end to this war, but he warned that Washington must see more from Riyadh. Lenderking was frank about the Houthis as well, stating that the group is certainly to blame for its failures to uphold cease-fire agreements and its general aversion to peace talks. Ultimately, Lenderking told the subcommittees, the United States remains committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people and he signaled that the Biden Administration is eager to leverage this commitment to push the international community to secure a nationwide cease-fire in Yemen and end the blockade of the Hodeida Port.

For their part, many Democratic members of both committees expressed concern about the potential resumption of arms sales to parties like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) plainly stated that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have poor records when it comes to human rights abuses and the protection of civilians and he frowned at the possibility that President Biden may eventually provide the UAE with F-35 fighter jets. US support for Saudi Arabia, Murphy argued, only fuels the proxy battles between it and arch foe Iran. The conclusion is that Yemen—and the broader region—is better served if the United States leans on Riyadh to reach a détente with Tehran.

During the second panel before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, Grande and Catanzano offered their recommendations for US policy. Grande proposed that the administration and Congress work together to continue giving generously to humanitarian groups providing services in Yemen, lift economic restrictions that block the import of food goods and fuel, help the Central Bank of Yemeni operate (including by making sure Yemeni civil servants get paid), and condition US engagement with Houthis in order to pressure the group to change its behavior. Catanzano’s recommendations were similar, and she argued for more funding to address the humanitarian crisis, end constraints on humanitarian operations across Yemen, and make a concerted effort to secure a negotiated nationwide cease-fire.

These hearings made clear that a substantive portion of Washington understands the urgency with which the new administration must engage on Yemen. Even without considering Washington’s moral obligations, ending the fighting and suffering in Yemen is a strategic imperative. Ongoing instability in Yemen will provide space for groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS) to operate and, as the Houthis grow more emboldened, they will likely continue their strategic partnership with Iran in order to conduct more emboldened attacks on Saudi Arabia. Officials in both the State Department and on Capitol Hill agree about the significance of ending the war in Yemen; now it is just a question of whether Washington will remain engaged enough to make real progress.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Advances Bills on Muslim Ban, OPEC, and Saudi Arabia. The House advanced a trio of legislation on import to the Middle East and US immigration policy. First, the full House voted to pass the NO BAN Act (H.R. 1333), which was introduced previously during the Trump Administration as an explicit rebuke of its immigration policies that barred immigrants from Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Yemen, and Somalia from traveling to the United States. Though President Biden rescinded Trump’s immigration order, lawmakers seek to ensure that no future president has the ability to impose a blanket ban, such as that of the former president. In addition, House members voted overwhelmingly to adopt Rep. Gerry Connolly’s (D-Virginia) Protecting Saudi Dissidents Act (H.R. 1392) that aims to deter Riyadh’s intimidation, harassment, and abuse of Saudi dissidents by prohibiting US arms sales to the kingdom as long as it engages in such activities. Lastly, the House Judiciary Committee advanced H.R. 2393, a bill known as NOPEC; should it become law, it would treat the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as a criminal cartel subject to US antitrust laws.

Secure F-35 Exports Act. Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (New Jersey) and Dianne Feinstein (California) introduced S. 1182—known as the Secure F-35 Exports Act—in an effort to boost congressional oversight of advanced weapons sales. This bill was prompted by the Trump Administration’s decision to sell a fleet of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates which many in Washington view as a threat to Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional neighbors. This legislation, among other things, would prohibit the sale and transfer of sophisticated weaponry to regional partners unless an administration could certify that the sale would in no way jeopardize Israel’s security.

US-Israel Cybersecurity Cooperation Enhancement Act. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) led a bipartisan group of senators in introducing S. 1193, which is being called the US-Israel Cybersecurity Cooperation Enhancement Act. According to Senator Rosen’s press release, the bill would establish a grant through the Department of Homeland Security to incentivize bilateral cybersecurity cooperation between the United States and Israel.

Maximum Pressure Act. A group of House Republicans teamed up with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicize a new bill called the Maximum Pressure Act (H.R. 2718), which looks to bar President Biden from returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Due to Democratic control of Congress, the bill is largely symbolic and has little chance of advancing; however, the GOP is signaling that it will not support any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran unless the latter complies with a list of 12 demands that Pompeo laid out during his stint as secretary. Among other things, the legislation would also require the president to submit any new agreement with Iran to the Senate for consideration as a treaty. This last requirement was echoed by another piece of legislation known as the Iran Nuclear Deal Advice and Consent Act (S. 1205), which prohibits the administration from using US funds to rejoin or uphold any deal with Iran unless it puts such an agreement before the Senate as a treaty.

Banking Transparency for Sanctioned Persons Act. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) introduced H.R. 2710 in an effort to increase transparency of Washington’s use of sanctions. Citing Iran sanctions, the Banking Transparency for Sanctioned Persons Act would force the Treasury Department to report to Congress any waiver issued that allows financial institutions to facilitate transactions with sanctioned individuals.

Israel Relations Normalization Act. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers led by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) introduced H.R. 2748 this week in the hope of building on normalization agreements signed between Israel and a handful of Arab states. The Israel Relations Normalization Act requires the State Department to publish reports detailing international normalization efforts, anti-normalization laws effective in Arab states, and a strategy for building on the so-called Abraham Accords. 

2) Hearings and Briefings

National Security Challenges and US Military Activities in the Greater Middle East and Africa. On April 20, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on US military operations in the Middle East and Africa. To offer their assessments of US national security challenges in the two regions, the committee hosted Biden Administration officials including Generals Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. and Stephen Townsend, the commanders for US Central Command (CENTCOM) and Africa Command, respectively, in addition to Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Amanda Dory. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a later hearing on the Biden Administration’s proposed budget and that hearing featured the same military officials who reiterated many of the same points made in the first hearing.

In her opening testimony, Acting Under Secretary Dory outlined US defense priorities in the Middle East, which include deterring Iranian aggression, disrupting the resurgence of extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), and protecting vital interests like the freedom of navigation through the Arabian Gulf. Following Dory’s remarks, General McKenzie outlined the policies he has been tasked with executing. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of his attention is currently dedicated to carrying out President Biden’s directive to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. While outlining other challenges facing the Department of Defense, General McKenzie cited the following as areas of interest: Iran’s threats to regional security and freedom of navigation, the enduring defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria, and efforts by Russia and China to secure strategic influence over parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. McKenzie, going back to the Trump Administration, has repeatedly held up these three challenges as those most important to the United States, but during this hearing he added a new area of concern that he says his CENTCOM team must face. He stated that the CENTCOM area of responsibility is arguably the most competitive when it comes to cybersecurity competition with adversaries and it also has the most serious problem with the proliferation of armed unmanned aerial systems (i.e., armed drones). General McKenzie made one final and important statement: that he does not envision a future where the United States completely withdraws its military presence from Iraq.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Majority of House Members Say They Will Not Condition US Aid to Israel. After Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) introduced legislation to condition US assistance to Israel on the latter’s human rights practices, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers in the House signed a letter swearing off any attempts to tie US assistance to Israel’s human rights record or any other policies. Ignoring the fact that Israel routinely uses US equipment and other assistance to arrest Palestinian children and demolish Palestinian homes, this group of lawmakers asserts that protecting Israeli security is of utmost importance, regardless of the consequences of Israeli policy on Palestinian civilians.

Progressives in both the House and Senate view things a little differently, however. During J Street’s annual conference this week, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) opened the door for conditioning US aid to Israel, with Senator Sanders arguing that it is only logical that Washington have a say in how Israel uses the billions of dollars it receives. This battle between progressives and the rest of the pro-Israel establishment will be something to watch in Washington. The parameters of the debate have already shifted in recent years and it appears that progressives are gaining momentum in their efforts to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Lawmakers Call for Holding Syria Accountable, Ending UNRWA Assistance. Two groups of senators wrote letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week, urging for immediate action on Syria and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). First, Senators James Risch (R-Idaho), Bob Menendez, and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) urged the secretary to use the upcoming Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) meeting to push for consequences for Syria’s illegal deployment of chemical weapons. Citing multiple chemical weapons attacks, the senators call for suspending Syria from the OPCW until it complies with all bans on the use of these weapons.

In a separate letter, Senator Risch and several of his Republican colleagues wrote to Secretary Blinken to express concern about the resumption of assistance to UNRWA. Arguing that the decision was hastily made, the signatories urge the secretary to halt the resumption of aid until it can certify a host of matters, including that no UNRWA affiliates have ties to groups like Hamas and that UNRWA clarify who counts as “refugees” in its interpretation. This last part stems from a long-standing argument by elements inside the United States and Israel about UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

In Blow to Turkey, President Biden Recognizes Armenian Genocide. As he promised during his campaign, President Biden has recognized the World War I-era atrocities committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, something that quickly drew Turkey’s ire. Turkey steadfastly denies that the 1.5 million Armenian deaths were a result of a systematic killing constituting genocide, though it does acknowledge that, beginning in 1915, the conflict between the Ottomans and millions of Armenians did result is an enormous loss of life. 

2) Department of State 

NGOs to Secretary Blinken: No Waivers for Egypt Aid. A group of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations teamed up to press Secretary of State Blinken not to waive any of the human rights requirements governing the flow of US assistance to Egypt. Citing Cairo’s ongoing human rights abuses, the organizations called on Blinken to withhold some $300 million assistance that could legally be blocked if Egypt is found to have engaged in violations of human rights.

US Negotiators Outline Which Iranian Sanctions Can Go, Which Must Stay. During a second round of nuclear talks in Vienna, the US negotiating team reportedly outlined for Tehran a list of sanctions President Biden is willing to lift and which sanctions will remain in place. Although the web of US sanctions on Iran is sprawling, the Biden Administration reportedly tried to distinguish which may be lifted, like terrorism-related ones explicitly used to try and prevent a return to the nuclear deal (e.g., those on the Central Bank of Iran), while maintaining others related to the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr Meets with Palestinian, Israeli Chambers of Commerce. This week, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs tweeted that Hady Amr, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, held virtual meetings with members of both the Palestinian American Chamber of Commerce and the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. According to the posts, Amr spoke with the groups about ways that trade and economic policy could help promote a two-state solution to the conflict.

3) Department of Energy

Secretary Granholm Discusses Renewable Energy in Call with Israeli Counterpart. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm spoke with Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz about renewable energy sources, general energy cooperation, and joint cooperation in the realm of cybersecurity.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here