WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Critic Of U.S. Role In Yemen Responds To Biden's Plans To Pull Back

Feb 8, 2021

President Biden said last week that the Saudi-led war in Yemen "has to end," as he pledged to end "all American support for offensive operations."

The complex war started in 2014, when Houthi militants supported by Iran overthrew the unpopular Saudi-backed government in Sanaa, Yemen's capital. A coalition of Gulf states — led by Saudi Arabia and with support from the U.S., France and the U.K. — responded with airstrikes starting in 2015.

More than 233,000 people have died since then, in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Large swathes of the population — upwards of 80% — face starvation.

The U.S. has backed the Saudi-led offensive during both the Obama and Trump administrations. That's included intelligence-sharing, logistical support, targeting information and bombs.

The U.S. has sold billions of dollars-worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since the war's start. U.S.-made bombs from Raytheon have killed people in hospitals, schools and civilian homes, according to Amnesty International.

Shireen Al-Adeimi is a Yemen-born professor at Michigan State University who has opposed the U.S. role in the war. She argues that the U.S. has done "really everything except for pulling the trigger."

"The U.S. has really been a major part of this war over the last six years," she tells All Things Considered.

Al-Adeimi says she was relieved to hear about Biden's push for renewed diplomacy to end the war, but remains skeptical. Here extended excerpts from Al-Adeimi's interview with All Things Considered.

You said you feel relieved, you wept with relief, but you're also skeptical about what may come next.

Because of the language that was used by President Biden in describing this. So he said that he was ending the offensive support for the war on Yemen and that he was committed to defend Saudi Arabian territories and defend Saudi Arabia's borders from the Houthi rebels. And this reminded me of the reasons that President Obama said he was getting into this war in the first place back in 2015 when they said that they were interested in protecting Saudi borders from the Houthi rebels. So I thought that this framing was a bit problematic if we are back to where we started.

And what does this mean for Yemenis on the ground? How do we differentiate between defensive and offensive operations when this entire mission, this entire involvement was under the pretext of defensive operations?

Does the U.S. have the ability to end this war?

A lot of parties involved. And this began as a civil conflict, but it escalated to an international one when Saudi Arabia began bombing with the support of the U.S. and the U.K. So I think the civil war will still continue. Civil unrest will still continue. But, you know, I've lived through two civil wars in Yemen. No civil war in Yemen has caused this much death and destruction. Because when people fight one another in their own country, they don't blockade food from one another because they're all affected. They don't destroy the infrastructure like the Saudi Arabian coalition has done. You know, they don't target UNESCO World Heritage sites and so on. So I think what we're hoping for here is that if the U.S. ends its complicity, ends its involvement, and if other countries also end their involvement, then Yemenis may have a chance to negotiate among themselves and come to some sort of deal.

Does the U.S. have any kind of constructive role to play if the ultimate goal is to end this war and the U.S. retains influence in the region?

I think the U.S. has the duty to provide reparations, to supply aid and to increase aid, which was cut to areas of Yemen under the Trump administration.

We can influence our allies like the Saudi Arabians, for example, and to use our diplomacy to get people to talk to one another, to lift the blockade, to get countries like the U.K. and Canada to stop fueling this war through arms sales and other forms of support. I think that's a role we have to play and allow Yemenis to work out the rest on their own. But, you know, sadly, we weren't on the right side of history on this one, we weren't on the right side. We have caused incredible damage to Yemen and have participated in the killing of so many Yemenis. And I don't think that we've earned the right to talk about peace.

Vincent Acovino and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Just how big a policy shift is the U.S. making on Yemen? Last week, President Biden announced he is ending support for Saudi Arabia and its intervention in Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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 arms sales.

KELLY: Biden called the war a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe. And on that point, there is little dissent. The United Nations says more than 80% of Yemen's population is starving.

Well, we want to bring in Shireen Al-Adeimi, assistant professor at Michigan State University. She has been advocating for an end to the war in her birth country of Yemen since 2015.

Professor Al-Adeimi, thanks for joining us.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: What was your top-line reaction when you heard those words from Joe Biden, the U.S. reversing its support for intervention in Yemen?

AL-ADEIMI: Honestly, I cried, and I did because it's been a long six years of waiting to hear from the U.S. president that specifically U.S. complicity in this war is going to end. And then right after that, I started to want to know more about it. And I let myself get a little skeptical and waited for the official announcement. But I was relieved, I think, more than anything.

KELLY: The U.S. has played a role here that has involved billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been leading the fight in Yemen against the Houthis - Iranian-backed rebels. It is a complicated conflict - but safe to say that U.S. arms sales and other support have helped to fuel it. And I want to just note the irony here that the U.S. got involved in this back in 2015 when Joe Biden was vice president.

AL-ADEIMI: That's right. So this is why it was difficult because for the first couple of years when we were advocating for an end to U.S. involvement in Yemen, many people weren't aware that the U.S. was involved in this way. And it's arms sales, like you mentioned, but importantly intelligence sharing. And at the time, we were refueling Saudi jets mid-air. You know, we continued to train their soldiers and their pilots, so it's really everything except for pulling the trigger. And so the U.S. has really been a major part of this war over the last six years. And it started with the Obama-Biden administration, escalated under Trump.

KELLY: Does the U.S. have the ability to end this war? - I mean, a lot of other parties involved.

AL-ADEIMI: A lot of parties involved - and this began as a civil conflict, but it, you know, escalated to an international one when Saudi Arabia began bombing with the support of the U.S. and the U.K. But, you know, I've lived through two civil wars in Yemen. No civil war in Yemen has caused this much death and destruction because when people fight one another in their own country, they don't blockade food from one another, you know, because they're all affected. They don't destroy the infrastructure like the Saudi Arabian coalition has done. You know, they don't target UNESCO World Heritage sites and so on. So I think what we're hoping for here is that if the U.S. ends its complicity, ends its involvement, and if other countries also end their involvement, then, you know, Yemenis may have a chance to negotiate among themselves and come to some sort of deal.

KELLY: I hear you saying you want the U.S. to end all involvement. But does the U.S. have any kind of constructive role to play if the ultimate goal is to end this war and the U.S. retains influence in the region?

AL-ADEIMI: I think the U.S. has the duty to provide reparations, to supply aid and to increase aid, which was cut to areas of Yemen under the Trump administration. But, you know, sadly, we weren't on the right side of history on this one. We weren't on the right side. We have caused incredible damage to Yemen and have participated in the killing of so many Yemenis, and I don't think that we've earned the right to talk about peace.

KELLY: That is Shireen Al-Adeimi, professor at Michigan State and an advocate for ending U.S. involvement in Yemen.

Thank you for joining us.

AL-ADEIMI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.