The U.S. military will no longer assist the bloody Saudi-led coalition attacking Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, President Joe Biden will announce today, according to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
“Today, he will announce an end to American support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Sullivan said of Biden during a White House press briefing Thursday.
Sullivan did not provide details but said the ban does not extend to U.S. actions against al-Qaida’s affiliate in the region, AQAP, “which are actions in service of protecting the homeland and America’s interests in the region, and our allies and partners.”
The Biden administration has already frozen sales of certain precision-guided munitions and other weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spearheaded at the end of the Trump administration.
“We have spoken with both senior officials in the UAE and senior officials in Saudi Arabia, we have consulted with them,” Sullivan said. “We are pursuing a policy of no surprises when it comes to these types of actions, so they understand that this is happening, and they understand our reasoning and rationale.”
The official announcement, set to take place when Biden visits the State Department later Thursday, is part of a broader series of actions on national security and foreign policy that will include a reexamination of America’s global force posture to be led by new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The move is one of the first major defense policy changes to be carried out by Austin. And it represents a move that Biden promised on the campaign trail and State Secretary nominee Antony Blinken had championed during his recent Senate confirmation hearing.
Until the announcement, the U.S. military had been providing intelligence sharing, logistics support to the Saudi-led effort and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the U.S. stopped providing aerial refueling support to that coalition.
Austin is well-familiar with the situation in Yemen, having led U.S. military efforts in the region at the commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016.
Since 2015, the Arab Sunni nations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led a coalition of states in Yemen against rebel Houthi forces, which are backed by the Shia government of Iran. Aligned with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014.
The armed conflict in Yemen has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
Citing the Yemen Data Project, HRW says that during the Saudi-led air war in Yemen, more than 17,500 civilians have been killed and injured since 2015, and a quarter of all civilians killed in air raids were women and children. More than 20 million people in Yemen are experiencing food insecurity; 10 million of them are at risk of famine.
The largest civilian casualty event, according to the Yemen Data Project, was the bombing of a funeral hall in the capital, Sanaa, on Oct. 8, 2016, where 832 civilian casualties were recorded with 137 civilians killed and a further 695 civilians injured. The deadliest bombing for children was an air raid on Dhahyan market in Sa’ada on Aug. 9, 2018, killing 40 children and injuring 56.
Mass casualty events like those put pressure on the U.S. to end its support for the Saudi-led coalition.
A few months after the air raid on the market, in November 2018, the Pentagon and Saudi officials announced the U.S. would stop refueling Saudi aircraft fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
However, Pentagon officials were quick to point out at the time that the refueling change would not affect the U.S. military assistance and training to improve the Saudi airstrikes, which have reportedly caused thousands of civilian deaths.
“The U.S. and the coalition are planning to collaborate on building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people, secure their country’s borders, and contribute to counter al-Qaida and ISIS efforts in Yemen and the region,” then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the time.
In May 2019, then-President Donald Trump vetoed a resolution passed by Congress to end U.S. military assistance in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The veto — the second in Trump’s presidency — was expected, and Congress lacked the votes to override it. But passing the never-before-used war powers resolution was viewed as a milestone for lawmakers, who have shown a renewed willingness to assert their war-making authority after letting it atrophy for decades under presidents from both parties.
The U.S. provides billions of dollars of arms to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. Members of Congress have expressed concern about the thousands of civilians killed in coalition airstrikes since the conflict began in 2014. The fighting in the Arab world’s poorest country also has left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
Trump said the measure was unnecessary because, except for counterterrorism operations against Islamic State militants and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the United States is not engaged in hostilities in or affecting Yemen.
He said there were no U.S. military personnel in Yemen accompanying the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthis, although he acknowledged that the U.S. has provided limited support to the coalition, including intelligence sharing, logistics support, and — until 2018 — in-flight refueling of non-U.S. aircraft.
Saudi Arabia said Saturday it intercepted an apparent missile or drone attack over its capital, Riyadh, amid the kingdom’s yearslong war against neighboring Yemen’s Houthi rebels, according to the Associated Press.
Social media users posted video of what appeared to be an explosion in the air over Riyadh. Saudi state TV quoted authorities in the kingdom acknowledging the interception.
Yahia Sarei, a military spokesman for the Houthis, said in a brief statement that the rebels had not carried out attacks on Saudi Arabia in the past 24 hours. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh issued a warning to Americans calling on them to “stay alert in case of additional future attacks.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.