Gerald Feierstein is senior vice president at the Middle East Institute. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013 and was the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2013 to retirement in 2016.
President Biden's announcement last week that he is directing a significant U.S. diplomatic push to end the catastrophic conflict in Yemen is welcome news. The president's decision to end support for Saudi Arabia's offensive operations in Yemen was certainly broadly anticipated. Nevertheless, it offers new hope for an end to more than six years of brutal conflict that has largely pitted Saudi-led coalition forces against Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
Moreover, the president's policy serves as a timely reminder that the current civil conflict interrupted implementation of a peaceful political transition underway since 2011 and offers new hope that the U.S. and the international community will recommit to support that transition.
The civil conflict in Yemen, including the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition, has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Although the U.S. role in the conflict declined substantially over the years, it was still largely perceived as an important pillar of the Saudi campaign. The Trump administration's 11th hour effort to sell Saudi Arabia a large package of advanced munitions reinforced the impression that the U.S. policy of unquestioned support to the coalition was undiminished.
Even more important was Biden's move to end the diplomatic hands-off approach of the past four years. With the appointment of a special envoy for Yemen, career diplomat Tim Lenderking, a reengaged America can inject new energy and generate brighter prospects for the negotiating process led by United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Indeed, only through diplomatic engagement can we resurrect the promise of a peaceful political transition that was upended by the Houthis' 2014 violent overthrow of Yemen's legitimate government.
In fact, the president's announcements come nearly 10 years to the day since young Yemenis first took to the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and the nation's other major cities to demand an end to decades of Ali Abdullah Saleh's corrupt and sclerotic rule. As the U.S. ambassador to Yemen at that time, I had the opportunity, along with several of my diplomatic colleagues, to work closely with Yemeni political leaders and civil society in crafting a roadmap to end the political upheaval and provide the country with an opportunity to turn the page on a troubled past.
Over the months of our mediation, Yemenis, with the support of the international community:
· produced a transition document that provided the only detailed blueprint among the Arab Spring countries for a peaceful transfer of power;
· went to the polls to replace Saleh with a new transition president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and government; and
· conducted a National Dialogue Conference not only to address the specific issues related to Saleh's ouster but also to provide recommendations for resolving some of Yemen's longstanding political, economic and social challenges.
Regrettably, the accomplishments that the Yemeni people achieved then have been lost over the course of years of civil strife and conflict. Criticisms have grown over perceived shortcomings in the transition process itself, whether that is unhappiness over the grant of immunity to President Saleh or a critique of the national dialogue outcomes. Today, Yemen's popular uprising is judged a failure, a prelude to the tragedy that followed, and Yemen itself has been branded as a "failed state."
But it is premature to close the book on Yemen's political transition. Certainly, no one should underestimate the extent of the damage and destruction that the country has suffered these past several years or the complexity of the challenges the country confronts. Nevertheless, in 2011 and 2012, the Yemeni people embarked on a democratic experiment that is not over. Yemenis are resilient and their desire to live in a stable, prosperous nation, which the world witnessed 10 years ago, is strong. To draw Yemen back from the precipice, the Biden administration can play a critical role:
First, to implement President Biden's dictum the U.S. needs to assert clear principles for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Regrettably, in the days since the president's announcement, the Houthis have launched new aggressive assaults in Yemen and across the border into Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs to be clear that this is an opportunity for the Houthis to demonstrate by their participation in a political process their willingness to play a role in Yemen as a legitimate voice for their interests. Furthermore, the U.S. should reinforce the point that efforts to achieve a military victory coming from either side will be unacceptable. In that context, to support U.N. Special Envoy Griffiths, the U.S. should press for the completion of the U.N.-sponsored joint declaration that will establish a cease-fire, reopen the Sanaa airport and lay the foundation for the resumption of the political process. In driving international community support for the process, the role of the regional parties is critical. Their involvement in supporting the Yemeni factions has complicated efforts to find a political resolution to the fighting. Thus, the U.S. should ensure that the regional parties, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but including Iran as well, proactively support and assist the special envoy.
Second, the U.S. must be a leader in addressing the humanitarian catastrophe that threatens the lives and well-being of millions of innocent Yemeni civilians. The administration's early decisions to rejoin the World Health Organization and reverse the Trump administration's misguided decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization were important steps. But the Biden administration should also reverse immediately the equally misguided actions of its predecessor that stripped millions of dollars in funding from international humanitarian organizations providing critically needed assistance. At the same time, it should work with the U.N. and international organizations to ensure that relief supplies reach their intended recipients and are not diverted by the Houthis.
Third, the Biden administration should declare that it will lead the international community in making a multiyear commitment to aid Yemen's recovery and reconstruction. The U.N., international financial institutions, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Friends of Yemen are essential partners. With colleagues, I am working on a Yemen Steering Initiative that maps out a future partnership between Yemenis and the international community designed not only to repair the physical destruction of the country and heal the wounds, but also to build the institutions and establish the framework for Yemen's future success. The U.S. can't achieve these results on its own and we should be under no illusion that this will be an easy or short-term task. But the world can't succeed in its support for Yemen without U.S. leadership.
Yemen is not defeated and it's not failed. Ten years ago, the U.S. embraced the possibilities of a vibrant, democratic Yemen. The Yemenis who stood up for that vision are still there and they still deserve our support.