Joe Biden has said the US will end its support for the war in Yemen, marking a break with six years of military assistance from Washington for the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iran-linked rebels in the impoverished Arab country.
“This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales,” the US president said in a speech at the State Department.
Mr Biden also announced that he was appointing Tim Lenderking, a career foreign policy officer who has spent years working on the Middle East, as his new special envoy to Yemen.
“We are also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which is [a] humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” Mr Biden said, adding that his team would support a UN-led ceasefire initiative and the restoration of “long dormant peace talks”.
The announcement comes after the White House suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in the first significant signal from Mr Biden that he intends to reset US relations with Arab regimes heavily courted by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Washington has sold tens of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which were used in the war. The UN says the conflict has triggered the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis, with millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation.
Earlier on Thursday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said the US had informed Saudi Arabia and the UAE of its decision to stop supporting the conflict. “We are pursuing a policy of no surprises,” he added.
The war in Yemen has dragged on since 2015, pitting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, which was forced into exile. The UAE was Saudi Arabia’s main partner in the Arab coalition but subsequently scaled back its support.
Aid agencies have warned that the Trump administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation on his final day in office risked triggering the worst famine in decades as the fear of sanctions threatened to choke trade with Yemen.
In one of its first foreign policy decisions, the Biden administration said it would allow transactions involving the Houthis, who control Sana’a, the capital, and the populous north, for a month while it reviewed the terrorist designation.
On Thursday, Mr Biden said the US agency for international development would also work to ensure humanitarian aid reached Yemeni people suffering “unendurable devastation”.
The administration of former president Barack Obama initially backed the Saudi-led coalition but curtailed support for the war during his waning days in office, although it stopped short of halting it entirely.
Mr Biden said that despite halting support for the war, the US would continue to help Saudi Arabia defend itself from missile and drone attacks and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries, some of which have been launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
A former senior Obama official described the decision announced on Thursday as a significant step, saying Saudi Arabia’s air force relied on US expertise and maintenance.
“Saudi Arabia’s air operations are a huge element of their war effort and if they can no longer do that, their war efforts are likely to be dramatically curtailed,” the former senior official said.
“The Trump administration’s efforts to solve the Yemen war were feeble and this step is a very significant move to bring the war to an end,” the former official added.
The US will continue its operations that target al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen.
During his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2019, Mr Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” and promised to end weapons sales to the Saudis, accusing them of “going in and murdering children” in reference to its bombing campaigns in Yemen.
Mr Biden also promised a reset with Saudi Arabia, a longtime US partner, and vowed to “make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are”, citing the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey.
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington