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A U.S. weapons sale is raising doubts about Biden's promise to help end war in Yemen


President Biden promises to help end the seven-year civil war in Yemen and ease the humanitarian crisis it's created. But that would involve U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia, which has been blamed for escalating the war. NPR's Jackie Northam reports that new U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia raised doubts about Biden's efforts.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Within a month of taking office, President Biden laid out his foreign policy vision, which included a promise to end the prolonged conflict in Yemen.


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 on Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

NORTHAM: The Biden administration thought cutting off some weapons sales would pressure the Saudis to make a deal with Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. But 10 months on, the war is still raging, and the Houthis are closing in on the last urban government stronghold, Marib. Peter Salisbury is with the International Crisis Group.

PETER SALISBURY: The government which the Saudis back is in collapse, and the Houthis sense victory. So there's very little incentive for them to come to the table while they're winning on the ground.

NORTHAM: That's forced the Biden administration to rethink weapons sales to Saudi Arabia amid its fight against the Houthis. The administration announced this month it would sell the kingdom $650 million worth of air-to-air missiles, which it considers defensive weapons.

JONATHAN SCHANZER: Ultimately, you know, we're talking about taking out UAVs and other weapons that are being launched against the Saudis. And this is how they will intercept them.

NORTHAM: That's Jonathan Schanzer, a Gulf specialist at the Federation for the Defense of Democracies. He says the missiles can intercept attacks that have put U.S. forces inside Saudi Arabia at risk.

SCHANZER: So they're framing this as defending American assets in the region but very clearly also a response to the uptick in attacks by the Houthis.

NORTHAM: But for many Yemenis, the arms sale to Saudi Arabia means the war, which is causing widespread famine, will drag on. Jehan Hakim is chair of the San Francisco-based Yemeni Alliance Committee. She sees Biden as backpedaling from his promise.

JEHAN HAKIM: I can't understand a strategy that can justify the killing hundreds of thousands of civilians because without the support of the U.S. when it comes to arms sales, logistical support, Saudi Arabia cannot continue its aggression on Yemen.

NORTHAM: The U.S. named Tim Lenderking a special envoy for Yemen to help reach a peace settlement, but he has struggled to make progress. The International Crisis Group's Salisbury says the administration is under pressure to pull the plug on Yemen.

SALISBURY: There is definitely a group of people in Washington in general and even, I'd say, within the White House who thinks the best thing to do in Yemen is get the Saudis to get out of the conflict, let it take its course and no longer make the U.S. culpable in its worst excesses.

NORTHAM: But Salisbury says that could possibly prolong the fighting. In the meantime, the suffering in Yemen continues. Afrah Nasser is a Yemen researcher with Human Rights Watch.

AFRAH NASSER: In my assessment, there is no one single household in Yemen that is not affected by the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Every house in Yemen is facing hunger, extreme economic hardships, unimaginable security issues.

NORTHAM: Nasser, who is originally from Yemen, is disappointed with Biden's inability to live up to his promise and stop the war. But she adds that as a human rights advocate, you can't lose hope. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.