Houthi violence and backing from Iran has shown US President Joe Biden that the original Saudi strategy to force the Houthis to end their military assaults is the only way to end the crisis in Yemen, the former ambassador to the Gulf country said on Wednesday.
Biden had called for the Saudis to restrain their military response to Houthi violence, during his 2020 election campaign and after taking office in January 2021, believing it would open the door to the Houthis entering negotiations.
However, during an appearance on the Ray Hanania Radio Show, former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein said that subduing Saudi efforts to confront the Houthis allowed the Iran-backed militia movement to expand their military campaign and target Marib and the important port at Al-Hudaydah.
Feierstein said that ending the conflict required the US-Saudi coalition to block the Houthi advance on Marib and Al-Hudaydah and show them that the Houthis had “no military option.”
“Certainly the Houthi response to the US initiative made it clear that the Houthis weren’t willing to stop. And then Saudi Arabia, of course, put on the table, along with the UN, cease-fire initiatives. They offered a cease-fire, a comprehensive cease-fire to the Houthis that was rejected,” Feierstein said, noting that the original Saudi strategy was correct and more effective.
“The UN tried to negotiate for many months what they called the Joint Declaration, which included a number of points that the Houthis had demanded including reopening the Sanaa airport; lifting the blockade on the port of Hudaydah and taking some other steps that the Houthis had indicated that they required. But still the Houthis refused to agree to stop the military operations and to return to the table. I think as we saw these cumulative failures on the part of the Houthis to accept a political approach, it became clear to the (Biden) administration that they needed to take a harder line.”
“Of course, the broader concern was if the Houthis were successful in taking control of the Marib governorate, which as you know is the source of much of Yemen’s oil and gas supplies. It is also home to well over a million internally displaced people, people who had largely fled from Houthi-controlled areas to an area that was still under the control of the government,” Feierstein said.
“So, if the Houthis were successful in getting control of Hudaydah that would fundamentally shift the balance inside of Yemen and make achieving any kind of political agreement that much more difficult.”
Despite social media and a pro-Iran campaign to blame Saudi Arabia for the continued violence, Feierstein said that the Houthis sought to control Al-Hudayah in spite of Biden’s efforts to restrain Saudi responses to Houthi aggression.
Feierstein contends that “the number one priority at this point is ensuring that the Houthis don’t succeed in Marib. That until again, as we discussed, this idea what we need to do is to strengthen those elements within the Houthi movement who want to negotiate, who want to cooperate with the UN and reach a negotiated solution. We need to strengthen them and weaken the elements who think they can still win a military victory. The first requirement is to prevent the Houthis from achieving their objectives in Marib and convincing again the Houthi leadership that there is no military solution.”
During the initial period, as Biden sought to negotiate a peace accord through the UN, the Houthis stepped up both their drone and missile attacks targeting Saudi civilians, and their media propaganda to place the blame for the conflict on the Saudis.
“There was a view here in Washington and I think more broadly in the West that the issue was really the Saudi military intervention and the coalition operations in Yemen, and if you took that out of the equation that the parties to the dispute, primarily the Houthis and the legitimate government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, would be able to come to the table and reach some kind of an agreement under UN negotiations, under UN auspices in order to move forward,” Feierstein said.
“President Biden was very clear in saying that the US strategy would shift away from the Trump approach, which supported the Saudi intervention, and emphasize the support for the UN negotiations and also press the Saudis to stop their military operations inside of Yemen. He also appointed Tim Lenderking, a career US diplomat, to be our special envoy and to support the UN.”
But Feierstein said that Biden’s approach quickly changed as the Houthis, backed by Iran, began launching more and more drone and missiles against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.
“Over the last five or six months, rather than returning to the negotiating table and cooperating with the UN, the Houthis in fact have expanded their military operations. They launched new aggressions inside Yemen, particularly in the Marib governate, and also have increased the amount of cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia using drones, scud missiles and other kinds of weapons to try to threaten Saudi civilian infrastructure,” Feierstein said.
“So, what we have seen over the past six weeks or so, six or eight weeks, the (Biden) administration has been willing to take a harder line with the Houthis and to single them out for responsibility for the failure to negotiate and also of course for increasing military conflict inside of Yemen.”
Feierstein said that the Iranians may be using the Yemeni conflict to leverage their negotiating efforts with the US over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, which former President Trump abandoned and President Biden sought to revive.
Discussions with Iran in Vienna have been at an impasse and State Department spokesman Ned Price accused Iran on July 17 of an “outrageous effort to deflect blame for the current impasse.”
Feierstein added that although Iran’s objectives in Yemen were not clear, the mullahs had great sway over the Houthi role in the conflict.
“The fact of the matter is they (Houthis) are heavily dependent on Iran for their weapons and for a lot of other kinds of support and therefore they can’t afford to ignore Iranian views and Iranian positions,” Feierstein said.
“There is certainly a view, a legitimate view, I think, that the Iranians are linking what happens in Yemen to the state of the negotiations in Vienna with the US about the nuclear deal and that the Iranians see Yemen as a pressure point on the United States to be more forward-leaning and lifting sanctions and doing other things related to the nuclear problem.”
Feierstein served as the US Ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama from September 2010 to October 2013 and was principal deputy assistant Middle East Institute senior vice president until 2016.
The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast live on the US Arab Radio Network on WNZK AM 690 radio in Detroit and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C. Sponsored by Arab News, the radio show is streamed live in video at Facebook.com/ArabNews.