From Gaza to Yemen and Back: The Biden Administration’s Confused Strategy

On January 17, the Biden administration announced it was adding Yemen’s Houthis (also called Ansar Allah) to the US terrorist list. The move returned the rebel group to the category applied by the Trump administration but lifted by President Joe Biden soon after he took office. On January 12, American and British naval forces attacked Ansar Allah sites and assets following three weeks of their assaults on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. But three years after President Biden reversed Trump’s decision, the redesignation may not amount to much because the Houthis are militarily stronger than any other group inside Yemen and are fully in control of roughly two-thirds of the Yemeni population. Furthermore, and perhaps more ominously for the United States, Ansar Allah is now more closely integrated into what is known as the “Axis of Resistance,” a coalition of pro-Iran non-state actors who view the United States as an enemy. The frequency of Iran allied militias’ attacks on US troops in Syria and Iraq is another manifestation of this enmity.

Hostile Relations with the United States

The Biden White House’s terrorist designation announcement included two refinements to Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis, made in President Donald Trump’s final days in office. First, the Biden administration named Ansar Allah a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) organization, a category that denies the Houthis access to the US financial system but carries a lesser sting than the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) categorization used by Trump. The SDGT designation lessens the impact on international humanitarian NGOs that deliver crucial assistance to Yemen, allowing them to legally continue their work. Second, the announcement included a potential reprieve, stating that the US government would reconsider the listing should the Houthis cease and desist from their attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. These refinements make the administration appear hesitant and weak, especially because terrorism sanctions seem irrelevant when imposed on a group not known to have any foreign financial assets. Worse is perhaps that from the Houthis’ perspective, the designation adds insult into injury and provides an incentive to continue their attacks on commercial ships and potentially to target US naval vessels and other assets.

The SDGT designation lessens the impact on international humanitarian NGOs that deliver crucial assistance to Yemen, allowing them to legally continue their work.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos five days into the US-UK bombing campaign, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan admitted that the strikes against the Houthis would not fully deter them. President Biden echoed this assessment on January 18, telling reporters, “Are [the strikes] stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.” The destruction of Houthi offensive capabilities was described by an unnamed US official as “less than a third” of the group’s assets. It could be hard to see how such an assessment could be made when it is difficult to ascertain the Houthis’ exact holdings or their ability to replace what was destroyed in the strikes. Iran, as the main source of arms to Ansar Allah since 2014, continues to smuggle weapons and missile parts into Yemen. Yemen has historically been both a destination for black-market weapons and a re-export point for such weapons. This author recalls Yemen’s then-leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, complaining as early as 2004 that his army had confiscated European-made weapons from Houthi fighters. The Houthis also seized American-made weapons and military vehicles, perhaps from Saudi and Emirati forces after the Saudi-led Arab coalition entered the Yemen conflict in 2015. When one adds to the estimates of the Houthis’ old stockpiles, including Soviet-era weapons, obtained from the Yemeni army, one has an idea of the group’s potential to keep fighting internally and regionally for a long time to come.

The US terrorism designation cuts both ways: Ansar Allah’s hostility toward the United States had previously been rhetorical, as they used the slogan “Death to America” for years but never fired a shot against US assets. Now, the Houthis deem the United States an enemy and its leaders have promised to retaliate against the United States and the United Kingdom. Now that the Houthis are even more closely integrated into the Axis of Resistance, the group’s allies likely will be even more motivated to strike at US targets in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, as recently happened in Jordan where a strike on an American base killed three US soldiers and injured more than 40 others.

A military response to the Houthis carries a risk of retaliation and the spread of Arab publics’ anger against the United States. Besides, if the Biden administration itself admits that the strikes have not produced the desired results, where then is the logic and the strategy behind choosing to target the Houthis?

The White House appears to be reacting to events tactically, and not very smartly at that. The Biden administration lacks a clear guiding strategy for the Middle East. Much of its approach to the region revolves around expanding the Abraham Accords, the Israel-Arab normalization agreements brokered by Trump in 2020, to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The Biden administration also is seeking to tie a solution to the Palestine problem to the proposed normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

National Security Strategy

The Biden administration’s approach to Middle East peace has been less dynamic than that of previous administrations. There is little mention in Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) of a Middle East peace process; on his first trip to the region as president, in July of that year, Biden did not present a specific plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace, instead only speaking broadly of regional “integration and interconnection.” The Biden administration, however, has actively implemented programs funded by Congress’s Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), enacted in 2020, which authorizes up to $250 million to promote Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and peace. Generous as MEPPA may be, the initiative does nothing to address the basic human rights and political aspirations of the Palestinian people. Moreover, the White House’s reported plan to merge Palestinian-Israeli peace with an Israel-Saudi normalization deal is controversial on many levels. But it certainly is as patronizing to the Palestinians and dismissive of the core problem as one of colonial occupation that denies them the right to self-determination.

Biden’s National Security Strategy mentions Yemen only as a “terrorist sanctuary.” But his first foreign policy speech as president prioritized peace in Yemen, and he quickly appointed a US Special Envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, to pursue that goal.

As with the Palestinians, so with the Yemenis. Biden’s NSS mentions Yemen only as a “terrorist sanctuary.” But his first foreign policy speech as president prioritized peace in Yemen, and he quickly appointed a US Special Envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, to pursue that goal. Biden’s envoy, however, only offered support for the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, while working with “friends and allies” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without ever presenting a uniquely American peace plan. It is also telling that to date, the US envoy has not developed direct relations with the Houthis, preferring instead to communicate with them indirectly via Omani intermediaries. With the redesignation of the Houthis, this will obviously remain the case.

Yemen Peace

Despite the helpful distinction between designations and special provisions to allow the flow of humanitarian aid to continue, there will be initial confusion and disruption of services among humanitarian organizations delivering assistance in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition’s naval blockade of Yemen, begun in 2015 to block shipments of arms from Iran, complicates access to goods and services. The Houthis currently enjoy a peaceful front with Saudi Arabia even if a final agreement between the two antagonists has yet to be formally concluded. Internally, several fronts between the Houthis and their opponents remain tense, if relatively quiet. An atmosphere of war in the region could certainly lead to the activation of internal fronts; indeed, fighting has already flared up at several flash points in southern Yemen.

The Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), representing several factions and regions of Yemen, and the Southern Transitional Council, aspiring to lead the southern part of Yemen but dominant only in the greater Aden area, remain at odds with the Houthis and are unlikely to come to a peaceful agreement with them. The recent US-UK military strikes against Houthi targets in northern Yemen further complicate the situation. Anti-Houthi forces could take advantage of the strikes to reignite the war since they were not happy with the Biden administration’s delisting them in 2021. On January 24, 2024, PLC Foreign Minister Ahmed Ben Mubarak met with his Emirati counterpart to denounce the Houthis’ attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and to discuss the means of “assisting the legitimate government of Yemen in its efforts to impose law and order throughout Yemen.”

The Houthis could retaliate in a more dangerous fashion than they have so far and the war would take a very bad turn for the people of Yemen.

The Houthis could retaliate in a more dangerous fashion than they have so far, by successfully hitting American targets, in which case the war would take a very bad turn for the people of Yemen who continue to suffer from violence, famine, and lack of essential goods. The Houthis have already ordered all American or British citizens working for humanitarian organizations in Yemen to leave the country. The continuation of hostilities in the Red Sea would complicate the easing of commerce and travel through Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport. The risks of military action against them have led to limited European participation in the US-UK strikes, with several NATO countries counseling caution and refusing to contribute naval units to the effort.

For its part, China abstained from the January 10 UN Security Council resolution condemning Houthi threats to commercial shipping, and while denouncing threats to maritime shipping, urged restraint in responding. China’s UN representative reminded his colleagues of the link between the Red Sea crisis and the war on Gaza, warning that adding fuel to the fire in the Red Sea would only delay a peaceful resolution of the Gaza war. On the other hand, a meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Thailand at the end of January failed to convince China to use its economic leverage with Iran to pressure the Houthis to allow free shipping in the Red Sea.

Even after its August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States reportedly retains about 45,000 troops in the Middle East, with additional movable forces on a high state of alert in case more might be needed in the region. Indeed, despite Biden’s stated preference to focus on Asia rather than on the Middle East, the United States remains mired in security problems in the region with no end in sight to American involvement there. Over the past decade, China (along with North and South Korea) has been executing a pivot of its own toward the Middle East. It should not be too much of an intellectual stretch for the United States to connect the dots and do both at the same time: enhancing relations with China by joining diplomatic efforts with it in the Middle East while lessening tensions in the Pacific.

The simple fact is that ratcheting up military and security measures in the region stokes more fires in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, while the Gaza problem remains knotted up in the ideological extremism of the right-wing Israeli government and unconditional US support for Israel, despite the tensions mounting between President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden may have already lost the Arab-American and Muslim vote in the November 2024 election, or at least a good chunk of it, while seemingly being unaware of why.

The same may be true of liberal and progressive voters due to their growing frustration with the Biden administration. The failure to connect injustice done to Palestinians and the ease with which the United States returns to bombing Muslim countries to the growing security risks in the Middle East is reminiscent of the question from the era of President George W. Bush, “Why do they hate us?” A wave of sympathy for the United States after the September 11, 2001, attacks was squandered by the knee-jerk reaction of US invasions and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the Israeli war on Gaza showing no signs of ending, the American and British strikes on Yemen are unlikely to solve the conflict with the Houthis—and may even worsen it.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD