The US pivots from Trump-era foreign policy as special envoy confirms talks with Houthi rebels to end Yemen civil war.
The US special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, said on Tuesday the United States was “aggressively” using back-channel discussions to speak to Houthi leadership in the war-torn country in an effort to end the country’s brutal civil war.
“We’re working now to energise international diplomatic efforts with our Gulf partners, the United Nations and others to create the right conditions for a ceasefire to push the parties toward a negotiated settlement to end the war in Yemen,” Lenderking said at a State Department briefing.
“We do have ways of getting messages to the Houthis and we are using those channels very aggressively as we’re engaging … in person with the leadership of the key countries involved,” he continued.
The move is part of a broader reset on the US policy towards Yemen and the broader Middle East.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 after the Houthi rebels launched an attack on the capital Sanaa that saw President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour deposed.
The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have since gained and maintained control over the majority of Yemen’s population and Sanaa. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in 2015, supporting forces fighting the Houthis – and sometimes each other.
The conflict is seen as a proxy war between regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The former administration of President Donald Trump, which maintained close relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, labelled the Houthis a “terror” organisation, which the Biden administration rescinded on Tuesday.
The Biden administration has also ended support of the Saudi Arabia-led forces in Yemen, though exact details remain murky.
The war has battered Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation. A Saudi-led blockade of Yemen’s ports began in 2017, after Houthis fired missiles at the kingdom in 2017.
The blockade has caused widespread starvation and been decried by international organisations, the US and the UN. Roughly 13.5 million are projected to be hit by the famine.
The UN’s humanitarian chief said on Tuesday he is “very alarmed” by a Houthi rebel advance on the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold of Marib, a city 120km (75 miles) east of Sanaa.
Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, tweeted on Tuesday that an assault on Marib could cause harm to two million civilians lead to the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands.
An assault on the city would put two million civilians at risk, with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee – with unimaginable humanitarian consequences. Now is the time to de-escalate, not to add even more to the misery of the Yemeni people.
— Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) February 15, 2021
The consequences would be “unimaginable”, Lowcock said.
Lenderking referenced Lowcock’s statement during the briefing, the Houthis’ move for Marib “is going to push an already stretched humanitarian infrastructure beyond the breaking point”.