Biden’s policy shift in Yemen courts environmental disaster

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A major disaster is unfolding in slow motion, with the international community seemingly incapable of taking any action other than public hand wringing.

A crippled oil tanker, FSO Safer, has been moored just north of the port city of Hudaydah, Yemen’s main hub for humanitarian delivery, for more than five years. It’s in bad shape. In January, the International Maritime Organization reported that the ship’s structural integrity is failing and risks leaking 48 million gallons of oil into the Red Sea. To put that in perspective, this is four times the 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. If the tanker leaks, it will shut down the major trade lane that feeds the Suez Canal. According to the executive director of the UN Environment Program, “time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe.”

Since last July, the United Nations has been trying, without success, to send a technical mission to assess the tanker’s condition. The Trump administration repeatedly called on the Houthis to permit UN technical teams’ unconditional access to the tanker. However, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who control the port at Hudaydah, continue to delay and block UN inspectors’ access to the ship. In response, the UN Security Council last month passed a resolution calling on the Iranian-backed Houthis to allow inspectors access to the tanker, which to date has been met with no response. 

As the Safer continues to deteriorate, the Biden administration is reinforcing the Houthis’ intransigence by surrendering U.S. leverage without extracting any concessions.

During the Trump administration, the United States prioritized activities in Yemen to: (1) support Saudi Arabia’s offensive against Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who regularly launch cross border attacks into the kingdom; and (2) counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. With respect to the former objective, U.S. support to Riyadh included intelligence sharing, logistics, arms sales and until 2018, aerial refueling.

This policy was not new. While serving as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, Antony Blinken explained, “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.” Blinken added, “[W]e have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation center.” Both the Obama and Trump administrations intended to minimize civilian casualties by providing Riyadh much-needed intelligence. 

The Trump administration went a step further. In the administration’s waning days and against a cacophony of dissent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Houthi rebel group, Ansar Allah, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Shortly after Inauguration Day, the Biden administration reversed course. On February 4, President Joe Biden announced the end of U.S. support to Saudi Arabia and the appointment of diplomat Tim Lenderking as his special envoy for Yemen, signaling a return to a diplomatic process that has yielded no visible success in years. Less than two weeks later, Biden lifted the foreign terrorist organization designation, sacrificing the leverage it would have provided his envoy during negotiations.

Biden’s rash policy reversal could not have come at a worse time. Two days prior, the United Nations, still trying to send technical experts to assess the condition of the Safer, announced that it had not received a response from Houthi interlocutors regarding the technical mission’s scope of work. The mission has been further delayed by new requests from the Houthis. Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia have also continued. On March 3, Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for an attack against Saudi Arabia’s civilian Abha airport, the same day Lenderking had his first meeting with Houthi representatives.

The Biden administration’s withdrawal of support from Saudi Arabia, while intended to realign towards a political solution, has instead made negotiating conditions more difficult. Over and over again we have seen that Iran and its Houthi proxy have zero interest in peace. The regime does not care about the millions of starving Yemenis who are forced to endure this conflict, just as it does not care about the looming environmental disaster, which would exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation. Rather, the regime is laser-focused on continuing to expand its regional dominance.

Moving forward, as the Biden administration attempts to find a political solution, it should ensure that UN access and a remedy to the Safer are included. If the Safer were to cover the Yemeni coast in oil, Yemen’s fishing industry would collapse and its already poor economy would be further degraded. On top of this, Hudaydah’s port would be disabled, preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching Yemen’s most vulnerable.

Additionally, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield should continue to use her international platform in New York to push for a resolution to the Safer. Working with Red Sea littoral states that would also be impacted by a potential oil spill as well as with the African Union, the United States should build an international pressure campaign against Houthi stalling tactics.

In the meantime, the United States, in coordination with the international community, should develop contingency plans for clean-up measures and delivery of humanitarian aid should the Safer leak.

With “millions knocking on the door of famine,” the Biden administration needs to rethink its reflexive reversal of its predecessor’s policies. With measures intended to promote peace, the Biden administration has both undermined that goal and increased the risk of an environmental disaster. 

Morgan Lorraine Viña is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Simone Ledeen is a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute’s Antonin Scalia School of Law. She previously served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy.  Follow Morgan and Simone on Twitter at @morganlroach and @SimoneLedeen

Tags Antony Blinken FSO Safer Houthi movement Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict In Yemen Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabia Yemen Yemeni Civil War Yemeni Crisis

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