U.S. President Joe Biden wants to end the war in Yemen, but it’s not likely that the conflict can be dialed back anytime soon, according to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“In fact, if anything, I think this is likely to make the conflict grow worse,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Tuesday.
Biden announced last month that the U.S. will withdraw its support for the offensive against the Houthi forces in Yemen.
Previous administrations under Donald Trump and Barack Obama backed the Saudi-led alliance in its intervention in the civil war in Yemen.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa from the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
A year later, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Sunni Arab states in support of the Yemeni government to oust the Houthis, a militia backed by Shiite-majority Iran.
According to the United Nations, the war has already caused an estimated 233,000 deaths — including more than 100,000 fatalities from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.
Schanzer said Biden’s move will not help end the war in Yemen because the U.S. does not have concessions to offer to the Houthis, who now have less incentive than before to make compromises.
“What the Biden administration has done is, it has taken the military option off the table for the United States, even by way of proxy through the Saudis,” he said.
Diplomacy the only option
“What is left right now is diplomacy,” Schanzer said.
“The reality that we are now facing is that we’ve taken really all of our other leverage off the table, and we’re simply going to hope that an Iran-backed militia will come to the table and act reasonably,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think this is wishful thinking.”
He noted that the Houthis have stepped up strikes even though the U.S. special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has implored them to negotiate.
Smoke billows above the residential area following airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition targeting Houthi-held military positions on March 7, 2021 in Sana’a, Yemen.
Mohammed Hamoud | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Schanzer said Saudi Arabia’s continued military operations could be “one of the few pieces of leverage” that the U.S. could use in discussions with the Houthis.
Still, he acknowledged that there is an aversion to being involved in the conflict. “It looks … as if the Biden administration has itself tied in knots a bit,” he said.
It’s unlikely that there will be progress toward ending the Yemen war for now, he said, pointing to the aggression from the Houthis.
“With the swarm drone attacks and the ballistic missile attacks and other acts of violence they’ve carried out in the Saudi state, it’s very, very hard to imagine that the Saudis are going to want to dial back on their reprisals,” he said.
— CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report.