Momentum Builds for Peace in Yemen as Biden Balances Saudi Ties

On June 2, the United Nations announced that both parties to the Yemeni Civil War have agreed to renew the United Nations-brokered ceasefire that has been in place since April 2 of this year. Although there is much progress still to be made, the ceasefire has led to a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties, and to the resumption of commercial flights out of Sanaa. Meanwhile, peace talks between the Houthis and the internationally-recognized Presidential Leadership Council continue to be held in Oman under the auspices of the UN. International leaders have celebrated these developments, with UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg calling the truce a “significant shift” in the war’s trajectory, and US President Joe Biden urging both parties to quickly seize this opportunity to move toward a comprehensive peace process.

However, President Biden is tasked with balancing both US engagement in the Yemeni peace process and US relations with Saudi Arabia—leader of the coalition against the Houthis and a vital US partner in the Gulf. The coalition was formed in 2015 at the request of former Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and quickly received US intelligence support and weapons sales to aid in his fight against the Houthi insurgents. Coalition forces have received intense scrutiny due to reports of both human rights violations and war crimes, including the recruitment of child soldiers.

According to a recent US Government Accountability Office report, the State Department failed to evaluate civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition between 2015 and 2021, with many of the attacks having been carried out using American-made weapons with approval from the State Department and Pentagon. In addition, there haven’t been proper efforts to prevent civilian casualties in the war; according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, there have been more than 14,000 civilian casualties from combat since 2018.

President Biden is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia in July, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to discuss oil production, the war in Yemen, and other regional issues. With the war in Ukraine reducing oil and gas supplies worldwide due to sanctions on Russia and pipeline disruptions, the international community has pressured top producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make up the difference. Saudi Arabia was initially hesitant to boost production, even as global prices skyrocketed. And while OPEC has pledged to increase production, there will always be a shortfall caused by the Russian embargo.

President Biden’s plans have caused an immense outcry among international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch, along with 12 other organizations, sent a letter to President Biden on June 9 emphasizing the rise in Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations since MBS assumed power in 2017, violations that include mass executions, war crimes in Yemen, and the murder of political dissidents such as Jamal Khashoggi. They also argued that Biden’s meeting with MBS gives the Saudi politician automatic credibility on the global stage, and urged Biden to secure human rights commitments with Saudi Arabia prior to the meeting.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden placed Saudi Arabia at the center of his foreign policy platform, promising to treat the country as “the pariah that they are.” In addition, Congress has recently focused on Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni Civil War, with H.J.Res.87 having been introduced on May 31. This resolution would end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen under the War Powers Act, since said support has long passed the 60-day deadline by which Congress is required to provide authorization for war. In media statements, resolution cosponsor Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) condemned US complicity in the Yemen humanitarian crisis and called on the House and Senate to promptly pass the resolution.

What will President Biden prioritize? As Biden’s approval ratings sink to the lowest level in his presidency, the White House will likely continue to look at rising gas prices through the lens of the president’s re-election prospects. Despite the outcry over human rights, Biden shows no signs of canceling or modifying his trip to Saudi Arabia, and his ambitious foreign policy campaign promises will almost certainly be once again discarded.

Also Happening in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Stop Iranian Drones Act. On June 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved H.R.6089, the Stop Iranian Drones Act. This bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in November 2021 and passed the House on April 27 with a 424 to 2 vote. The bill aims to clarify the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, applying sanctions to Iran’s robust program of unmanned aerial combat vehicles, which were not added to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms until 2019. Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho) released a statement on the bill following the Committee’s approval, wherein they cited Iranian attacks on Israeli shipping, Houthi activities in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and attacks on US compounds in Iraq as examples of the threat that Iran poses across the region.

Rep. Proposes Integrated System for Defense Against Iran. On June 8, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) introduced H.R.7987, which would require the Secretary of Defense to cooperate with partners and allies in the Middle East on “integrated air and missile defense” against threats from Iran. The bill, which is bipartisan and has five cosponsors, was introduced to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rep. Boebert Proposes Legislation Re: Guantanamo Bay. On June 9, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) proposed H.R.7999 to the House Committee on Armed Services, which would prevent the Biden Administration from building facilities in the United States to house potential released detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The bill has six Republican cosponsors.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Schiff Spearheads Letter Urging Biden to Recalibrate US-Saudi Relationship. Representative Adam Schiff (D-California), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to President Biden highlighting Saudi human rights abuses and urging the president to recalibrate US ties with Saudi Arabia. He also called on Biden to ensure that US-Saudi relations “serve America’s national interests,” as Biden plans to visit Saudi Arabia later this summer to strengthen diplomatic ties with Riyadh and to discuss oil markets, the war in Yemen, ballistic missile cooperation with China, and other topics with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Five other House lawmakers have signed onto the letter, including House Foreign Affairs chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington). And although Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) did not sign onto the letter, she has been publicly critical of Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, calling on President Biden to place Saudi Arabia at the top of his list of global human rights abusers.

House Letter Calls for Independent Investigation of Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death. Organized by Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), a group of 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging an independent investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The letter requests that Secretary Blinken ask the Palestinian Authority to turn over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, which they have so far withheld. A previous House letter with 57 signatories advocated for a joint FBI­–State Department investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, but their request was rejected by the White House.

Reps. Meeks and McCaul Issue Statement on US Hostages in Iran. On June 6, Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), issued a statement calling on the Biden Administration to pursue the release of US hostages held by Iran. The statement named several Americans currently imprisoned in Iran and advocated for their release regardless of the status of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which have currently stalled due to tensions regarding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Representatives Criticize Proposed Israeli Inclusion in Visa Waiver Program. Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) initiated a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticizing potential efforts to include Israel in the US Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israeli citizens to enter the US for 90 days without a visa. The letter highlights Israel’s discriminatory entry policies towards Middle Eastern, Muslim, and pro-Palestinian travelers, including American citizens of Palestinian origin. The letter has been cosigned by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), and Representative Tlaib is reportedly soliciting other signatures.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Holds Hearing on US-Syria Policy. On June 8, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hosted a hearing titled “The Path Forward on US-Syria Policy: Strategy and Accountability.” The presiding officer was Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the committee, and witness testimony included that of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, several other defense officials, and an unnamed witness regarding the matter of mass graves in Syria. The anonymous witness testified regarding the horrors he witnessed in Syria and begged Congress to act against the Assad regime to prevent future atrocities. A legal expert in war crimes prosecution was also present and answered questions on war crimes prosecution in international courts.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Updates Congress on Current Military Activity. In accordance with the War Powers Act, President Biden sent a report to the Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate outlining current US military activity across the world. The report outlined counterterrorism efforts in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as US forces in Egypt as part of the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping organization.

Biden Postpones Israel Trip. On June 6, US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides announced that President Biden’s trip to Israel, originally scheduled for late June, has been postponed. As his first Middle East trip while in office, Biden had planned to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories to meet with leaders and discuss regional issues. Ambassador Nides said the trip will now likely take place in July.

2) Department of State

US, Germany, France, and the UK Issue Statement on IAEA Iran Resolution. On June 8, the governments of the US, Germany, France, and the UK issued a statement welcoming the recently-passed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution urging Iranian cooperation with their nuclear safeguarding program and non-proliferation treaty. The resolution was created after Iran failed to respond to an inquiry into nuclear materials found at three unauthorized sites across Iran.

DoS Criticizes UNHRC’s Inquiry on Israel and Palestine. On June 7, the State Department released a statement on the recent UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Israel and Palestine. The 18-page report names the Israeli occupation, demolitions, settler construction and violence, and the blockade of Gaza as root causes of the “persistent cycle of violence” in Israel and Palestine. The State Department affirmed its commitment to human rights and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians, but called the report one-sided and biased, and criticized the UN’s “longstanding pattern of unfairly singling out Israel.”

Special Envoy Lenderking Advocates for Yemen Funding. Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking spoke to reporters on June 7, highlighting the potential for a permanent ceasefire in Yemen and pushing for full funding to avert a potential oil spill in the Red Sea. The FSO Safer oil storage vessel sits off the coast of Yemen, holding over one billion barrels of light crude oil, and has not been maintained or repaired since it was seized by the Houthis in 2015. An oil spill in the region could have disastrous consequences, costing millions to repair and threatening thousands of Yemeni jobs. The UN and the Houthis agreed on a Safer replacement plan in March but the UN is lacking the $80 million in funding needed to carry out the first phase of the plan.

Special Envoy Hochstein Comments on Lebanon Energy Imports. In remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein said that Lebanon has received “pre-clearance” to import fuel from Egypt and Jordan via Syria. This would be a violation of US sanctions against Syria set in the Caesar Act of 2019, but Hochstein hinted that the final contracts may be approved so long as the energy sales do not benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Special Envoy Hochstein is expected to travel to Lebanon next month, meeting with leaders to discuss their energy crisis.

Assistant Secretary Phee to Travel to Sudan. From June 5-9, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee traveled to Sudan in support of the Sudanese-led process to resolve the country’s current political crisis, which has been ongoing since their October 2021 military coup. Assistant Secretary Phee met with Sudanese stakeholders and politicians and urged them to support this democratic transition process.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Travels to Israel and Palestine. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf will visit Israel and Palestine June 11-14 to meet with officials and civil society leaders. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr and National Security Council Director for Israel and Palestine Cynthia Cook will accompany her on the trip.

USAID Administrator Power Meets with Qatari Officials. On June 6, USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The leaders discussed humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen, and potential collaboration between the US and Qatar to address climate change and food insecurity. Administrator Power also thanked al-Thani for Qatar’s efforts in addressing the crisis in Afghanistan, including their evacuation operations in August 2021 and recent $25 million humanitarian pledge.

3) Department of Defense

US General Investigated for Qatar Lobbying Ties. According to federal court filings obtained on June 7, the FBI has seized electronic data as part of an investigation into retired general John R. Allen, who led US and NATO forces in Afghanistan before assuming the role of president of the Brookings Institution, a role from which he has since resigned. Allen allegedly acted as a lobbyist for Qatar during a 2017 diplomatic crisis in the region. Other individuals implicated in the case include former US Ambassador to the UAE and Pakistan Richard Olson, and Imaad Zuberi, a political donor. Olson pleaded guilty to federal charges as part of the investigation, and Zuberi is currently serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. The US Department of Justice requires anyone lobbying on behalf of a federal government to add themselves to a lobbyist registry. Allen maintains that he was not working as a Qatari agent, and that his activities in Qatar were purely diplomatic.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions IRGC and Hezbollah Financiers. On June 6, the Department of the Treasury announced that the Terrorist Finance Targeting Center has sanctioned three individuals and two groups with connections to the Quds Force branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). According to the Treasury, the individuals, Ali Qasir, Meghdad Amini, and Morteza Hashemi, have acted as intermediaries to obfuscate IRGC oil sales, and have laundered money for the organization. The two groups, Saraya al-Mukhtar and Saraya al-Ashtar, are both based in Bahrain and have strong IRGC ties. The Treasury announcement states that Saraya al-Mukhtar aims to exert Iranian influence in Bahrain and has plotted assassination attempts against US and Bahrani officials, while Saraya al-Ashtar has claimed responsibility for multiple terrorist attacks in Bahrain and has called for violence against the US government on social media. These sanctions come as nuclear negotiations with Iran stall, and as US-Iran relations have become more strained.

Treasury Department Sanctions Individuals with IS Connections. On June 6, the Department of the Treasury announced that it will apply sanctions to four individuals associated with the so-called Islamic State (IS): Ismatullah Khalozai, Alaa Khanfurah, and Muhammad and Hussam al-Qatirji. The Treasury states that these individuals facilitated financial transfers between IS leaders across Turkey and Syria and helped obscure oil sales through the Al-Qatirji Company.