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Biden Bows to the Saudis – Trita Parsi & Annelle Sheline

February 02, 2022
Biden Bows to the Saudis - Trita Parsi & Annelle Sheline





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President Biden appears to have abandoned his pledge to withdraw all support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Annelle Sheline and Trita Parsi join Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news.


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TRANSCRIPT:


Paul Jay

Hi, welcome to theAnalysis.news, I’m Paul Jay. We’ll be back in just a few seconds to talk about President [Joe] Biden’s pledge to stop American support for the war in Yemen. Saudi’s war in Yemen. And what just happened to that pledge because not much has happened.


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In a September 2021 article by Annelle Sheline and Bruce Riedel, they wrote, When Joe Biden included ending the war in Yemen as a key goal during his first foreign policy speech as President, he was breaking with his predecessors. Donald Trump had backed the Saudis and the Emirates, even using a presidential veto to stymie a congressional attempt to end U.S. involvement in the war.


When Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, then Saudi defence Minister, launched his military intervention in Yemen in 2015, Barack Obama decided to provide assistance. A Faustian bargain aimed unsuccessfully at tempering Saudi criticism of the Iran nuclear deal.


Biden’s decision to prioritize Yemen by appointing a special envoy as well as reversing Trump’s designation before leaving office of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization raised hopes that a greater emphasis on diplomacy from the U.S. might finally move the devastating war towards resolution. Yet almost eight months later, little has changed.


Well, that was back in September, and now we’re a few months ahead, and still, nothing much has changed, except maybe it’s getting worse. In a joint statement, the United Nations special envoy and humanitarian coordinator warned last week that January will almost certainly be a record-shattering month for civilian casualties in Yemen.


Now joining us is Annelle Sheline, who’s a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, and Trita Parsi, the Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute. Thank you very much for joining us.


Trita Parsi

Thank you.


Annelle Sheline

Thanks for having me.


Paul Jay

Now, why don’t you kick us off? First of all, give some basic context. Why are the Saudis in Yemen to begin with? I know it’s complicated, but a lot of the viewers aren’t up to speed or have forgotten. So give us some of the basic background, and why does this never seem to end well?


Annelle Sheline

Your intro was great, as you mentioned back in —


Paul Jay

It was great because I just read you. I read your article. You wrote the intro. So that’s why it was great. Go on.


Annelle Sheline

You picked out some important context. I know it can seem very complicated. I’m sure perhaps some of your viewers they’re aware that Yemen is in crisis, and it pops up, but it’s sort of unclear why is it in the headlines most recently.


The reason it’s in the headlines now is because we have seen an escalation and violence. We’ve seen the Houthis firing missiles and drones at the UAE [United Arab Emirates], and they had essentially ceased doing that after the UAE withdrew most of their forces militarily at the end of 2019, and now that the UAE has gotten reinvolved, we’re seeing an escalation. The Houthi is essentially saying, back off the way you were before, and we’ll leave you alone. The question now is —


Paul Jay

Quickly, is there fairly definitive evidence it actually was the Houthis that fired that missile?


Annelle Sheline

There is fairly definitive evidence that it was the Houthis. This came up also with the attacks on Abqaiq, the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that the Houthis claimed, although ultimately it was decided that it was more likely that that probably came from Iran. Although my understanding is the jury is still out there.


But essentially, part of why the U.S. is so concerned about this is because the missile that was launched was targeting or could have potentially hit U.S. service members stationed at the Al Dhafra Air Force Base near Abu Dhabi in the UAE. And so, this is why we might see the Biden administration reverse their position.


So one of the first things Biden did when he came into the White House was to lift the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. That was one of the last things Trump had done. The concern there was just that it was going to have a devastating humanitarian impact and that it wouldn’t necessarily affect the Houthis’ ability to fight their war all that much. Just because they are not particularly plugged into sort of the international economic system.


I mean, the fact that they’re designated doesn’t necessarily affect them. What it would affect would be the ability of humanitarian organizations to interact with them legally in a way that they could distribute aid to the 25 million Yemenis that live in territory that is controlled by the Houthis.


And again, why do you periodically see these Horrifying images of starving Yemeni many children? Sixteen million Yemenis are very much at risk of death from starvation right now, and that would get worse if we did see that the Biden administration decided to reverse their position and redesignate the Houthis.


But they might do it, given that the Houthis are now targeting U.S. service members in places like the UAE. The UAE has requested this. Saudi Arabia would certainly like that. But then that would place responsibility for the deaths of all these Yemenis squarely on the shoulders of the Biden administration, when in fact, the Houthis themselves are quite responsible for much of the devastation that we see in Yemen.


It’s a Saudi blockade. But I want to be clear that the Houthis are also they’re not good guys here. They’re doing horrible actions, and if the U.S. were to take all this blame, the Houthis could just blame the U.S. for it instead of the fact that, no, the Houthis are themselves responsible for much of the misery that Yemenis are suffering.


Paul Jay

Trita, what business have the Saudis got being in Yemen anyway, and why are they so committed to this?


Trita Parsi

Well, this is one of the projects of MBS [Mohammed bin Salman]. When he was ascending as Crown Prince and taking over more and more power, he’s made it his pet project. It was supposed to make him a hero. It’s fascinating to see the kind of memes that were being shared on Saudi Twitter, clearly by government bots in which she was really lionized as the hero. That will be salvaging Saudi dignity and dominance in Yemen.


And now, of course, the Houthis are attacking Saudi territory, but it’s a factor of, I think, roughly eight to one, in which the Saudis are hitting the Yemenis far, far more than the Houthis are hitting Saudi. Bottom line is, no, they don’t have much of a business conducting this type of war.


Does Saudi have legitimate interests in Yemen in terms of being a neighbour? Of course, it does. But that interest does not justify the type of interference, particularly not the type of kinetic interference that the Saudi’s have conducted. Moreover, the question is, what business at the United States have in all of this? And frankly, we don’t have any real interest. We should not be on the side of the Houthis, nor should we be on the side of the Saudi’s.


If anything, to the extent that the United States should be involved, it should be to help bring an end to this conflict, which, unfortunately, we lack the diplomatic capability of doing so right now because we have decided once again to take the side of the party and be a belligerent. But we have another way of ending that war: simply stop selling these weapons to the Saudis, something that the Biden administration claimed that they would do.


But now we know quite clearly that this loophole that they created for themselves by saying that they’re going to end all offensive weapons sales essentially means that critical weapons sales continue to flow to the Saudis $650 million just approved by Congress. And as a result, we also have seen a significant increase in the Saudi operations after that. The Saudis view that arms sale as a green light for the Saudis to continue to bomb Yemen into small pieces.


Paul Jay

Now you said that Houthis are also responsible for some of the humanitarian crisis or issues, and I guess that’s going to be true in a civil war no matter what, but it’s not. The underlying issue here is that the Saudi intervention in Yemen is out and out illegal. Under the UN Charter, Yemen would have to be an imminent threat to Saudi Arabia to justify an intervention, and obviously, they weren’t. This is practically colonial what the Saudis are doing. Am I right?


Annelle Sheline

You are, but it’s really quite disappointing the role that the U.N. has played here because — I don’t want to get too much into the background on Yemen. The previous President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to step down after months and months of protest. This was back in the context of the Arab Spring. So 2011-2012, he stepped down.


His deputy, who was never, in fact, elected but was sort of put in place through the support of the Saudis. He was then ousted when the Houthis took over the capital city of Sanaa, and then that precipitated the Saudi intervention. Then almost immediately, the U.N. authorized the Saudi intervention under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 22-16, which remains the operating framework under which the international community engages on Yemen.


And this essentially reflects the sentiments of the U.N. at the time, which was that the Houthis were to blame and the Saudis were legitimately involved to try to reinstate President [Abdrabbuh Mansur] Hadi and continue the Democratic transition in Yemen. However, those terms essentially require those to give up all territory that they had acquired and to give up their weapons, which already is a non-starter. Yemenis are some of the most heavily armed people in the world. This is just part of what it means to be Yemeni.


And so, the terms for negotiations were something that the Houthis were never going to agree to. And at the time that they were established, there was this belief, as Trito was mentioning, that the Saudis would be able to go in. Three weeks later, this ragtag group of rebels would have been defeated. MBS could emerge victorious and demonstrate why he was a good candidate to become Crown Prince, which he ultimately became anyway.


Instead, what we’ve seen is what happens so frequently when you have a foreign invader devastating the local population, even though many of those local people may not actually love the group that claims to be fighting on their behalf. There’s a nationalist sentiment that coalesces behind them because, of course, the sort of internal Yemeni fight of who’s going to control Yemen is that the Houthis is that we also have secessionist forces in the south that would like the independence of South Yemen to be reestablished.


We have all of these competing groups. And the reason we continue to see such a long-running war in Yemen is not so much necessarily that the Yemenis cannot figure this out for themselves. It’s that we’re seeing this inflow of foreign resources, of weapons and money from the Saudis, from the UAE, from the U.S. being involved in this and continuing to sell weapons here. The U.K. branch, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, are competing with each other for these lucrative military contracts to continue selling to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


On the other hand, you do have Iran continuing to send support to the Houthis, which was one of the initial reasons Saudi Arabia justified their involvement. But Iran, again, it’s sort of this question of scale. As Trita mentioned, you think about the role that the Houthis are playing in devastating the civilian population. It is minuscule compared to what the Saudis are able to do because they have an Air Force, and they have bombed for the past seven years civilian infrastructure. That’s what is devastating Yemen.


Similarly, the Iranians can send support to the Houthis at this point. They’ve transferred the knowledge of how to rig a cruise missile, for example, and the Houthis are able to do this. So, even if Iran, for example, was interested in telling the Houthis to stop at this point, it is not clear that the Houthis would necessarily really listen to Iran.


They have the knowledge they need. And from Iran’s perspective, it’s useful for them to have this group that needles Saudi Arabia and causes the Saudis to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in Yemen every year on what is only an escalating source of threat to them because the Houthis have gotten better at launching these projectiles.


And from the Saudis perspective, this is a complete strategic debacle because what started as what seemed like a minor issue that they could just go in and handle,


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