President Joe Biden has announced the United States is ending support for the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen that has deepened suffering in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.
“The war has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” President Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as leader. ”This war has to end.”
The Yemen reversal is one of a series of changes President Biden laid out on Thursday that he said would be part of a course correction for US foreign policy.
That is after Donald Trump — and some Republican and Democratic administrations before his — often aided authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability.
The announcement on Yemen fulfils a campaign pledge. But it also shows President Biden putting the spotlight on a major humanitarian crisis that the United States has helped aggravate.
The reversing of policy also comes as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia, a global oil giant and US strategic partner.
The ending of US support for the offensive will not affect any US operations against the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, group, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
President Biden also announced an end to “relevant” US arms sales but gave no immediate details on what that would mean.
The administration already has said it was pausing some of the billions of dollars in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main partner in its Yemeni offensive.
While withdrawing support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, the Biden administration said it intends to help the kingdom boost its defences against any further attacks from Yemen’s Houthis or outside adversaries.
The assurance is seen as part of an effort to persuade Saudi Arabia and other combatants to end the conflict overall.
Saudi Arabia’s top officials made no immediate public response. They have offered a series of conciliatory gestures and remarks since President Biden’s election, seeking to soothe the 75-year-old relationship with the United States.
Yemen, the biblical kingdom of Sheba, has one of the world’s oldest constantly occupied cities — the more than 2,000-year-old Sanaa — along with mud brick skyscrapers and hauntingly beautiful landscapes of steep, arid mountains.
But decades of Yemeni misgovernment have worsened factional divisions and halted development, and years of conflict have now drawn in intervention by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, which officials say has lent increasing support to the Houthis.
The Obama administration in 2015 gave its approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting the Houthi rebels, who had seized Sanaa and other territory and were sporadically launching missiles into Saudi Arabia.
US targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia’s command-and-control was supposed to minimise civilian casualties in airstrikes. But Saudi-led strikes since then have killed numerous Yemeni civilians, including schoolboys on a bus and fishermen in their boats. Survivors display fragments showing the bombs to be American-made.