Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, says the US is pushing for “regional solutions for a regional problem”.
In an interview with The National in Manama, he said there was an opportunity to improve the situation in Yemen as “there is a lot of unity among the international community and attention, partly because of the Biden’s administration’s emphasis on Yemen”.
He said the “attention that the international institutions are starting to place on the economy, an area of severe need that has been under-appreciated in this conflict, the fact that donors are still willing to come forward and pay into UN and other coffers, should show the Yemeni people that they are not forgotten.
“I can assure you that the US is going to stay in it until we see Yemen turn the corner away from conflict and into a peaceful future,” he said.
He stressed that it is for Yemenis to decide that future.
Mr Lenderking, who visited Yemen last month and is often in the region, stressed the importance of speaking with Yemenis directly.
“In my conversations with Yemenis inside the country and outside, it is apparent they are thirsty for a peaceful resolution,” he said.
He spoke of the importance of having the government working inside Yemen.
However, he added that “the government of Yemen needs more financial and economic help and we will mobilise to help them".
Despite Mr Lenderking’s commitment, the Houthis have shown intransigence.
One of the first decisions the Biden administration made related to Yemen was to revoke the terror designation that the Trump administration had imposed on the Houthis.
On February 12, Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, announced the administration would remove the designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.
“The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant US policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” he said.
“By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue."
The humanitarian situation in Yemen remains precarious, however, and the Houthis have not engaged in dialogue.
Mr Lenderking defended the decision saying it was “based on primarily humanitarian factors. We thought there would be impediments for humanitarian work in Yemen and there was an adverse reactions from commercial shippers almost immediately and this was not something we could afford to take.
“Our decision was not out of recognition that the Houthis were a benevolent force. We were still very concerned, and remain very concerned, about their behaviour."
Asked if the revocation of the designation brought about the desired results, Mr Lenderking said: “It was something we just felt we just had to do and we had hoped it would send a signal to the Houthis that we are approaching the conflict in a different way."
Mr Lenderking said it was a “positive gesture. They have not responded in a way that I would have liked to see”.
The US continues to sanction top Houthi leaders and last Friday announced new sanctions on Saleh Mesfer Al Shaer, commander of the Houthi-controlled military logistics organisation that smuggles weapons, and the “Specialised Criminal Court” that seizes assets of their opponents.
The Biden administration views these sanctions as part of the leverage it has over the Houthis.
Mr Lenderking said: “They don’t like when their leaders or operators are designated, that is something they react against. The fact they are out of step with the international community, with the exception of Iran, is something that they notice.
“There is an element of the Houthi leadership and the legitimacy that that confers is important to the organisation and I would say that is a debate I hope they would have."
Part of the American calculation is that if there was a political agreement, it is expected that the Houthis would have representation in government, which would mean they would want their political leaders to be left unsanctioned.
The US envoy sounded particular alarm about Marib, calling it a “brutal fight”.
He added that “the fact they have persisted in a military campaign against the strength of global opinion, continuing to fight in Marib.
“It is a brutal fight. We continue to ask why do Yemeni youth need to be sacrificed here in this battle? I know there are other fronts but this is really the one where the Houthis have devoted so much attention, this is out of step with the international community”.
However, Mr Lenderking said that “it is not a foregone conclusion” that the Houthis will be able to take over Marib, and even if they did “there would still be a lot of territory not under their control”.
The US diplomat therefore call on the Houthis “to see that their pursuit of a military solution is not good for Yemen … what we are talking about is the sacrifice of Yemeni lives”.
But since the Stockholm talks almost three years ago, there have not been direct talks between the Yemenis for a peaceful resolution.
There has been an escalation of attacks by Iranian-backed proxies in a number of countries in the region, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on the residence of the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
Mr Lenderking said “certainly the role that the Iranians play is a negative one, and the Iranians continue to train, supply, equip, encourage Houthi attacks and the pace of attacks this year is more than last year, and the month of September more than August and that is completely unacceptable”.
He clarified that “I don’t expect in any scenario that we plan that we envision Iran playing a constructive role at this point. If there is improvement on the JCPOA [Iranian nclear deal] track, there could be some positive rebound on the conflict, even though Yemen is not an agenda item in those talks”.
However, Mr Lenderking said “as the Yemen envoy, I cannot wait for that moment, we have to continue putting all of our efforts into solving the Yemen conflict and not wait for other developments on the world stage to happen”.
In his speech at Manama Dialogue, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin stressed the need to bolster the defences of Saudi Arabia and said that now 90 per cent of projectiles approaching the kingdom were intercepted.
Mr Lenderking said that “we need to get to 100 per cent. Of course, we need the Houthis to stop attacking the kingdom, in the same way we need Saudi Arabia to take all the appropriate steps to end the conflict. Everyone working together to come to a political solution … the Saudis do want to see the conflict resolved.”
Another recent escalation by the Houthis has been the arrest of Yemenis who had worked in the US embassy in Sanaa.
Mr Lenderking said he was not aware as the reason for the current escalation. However, he alluded to possible divisions between the Houthis who led to this escalation, asking “are we seeing rivalries between different leaders of the Houthi leadership? This is not a step for an organisation that wants to build credibility would do”.
Asked whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would embolden the Houthis, Mr Lenderking sees the Afghan developments as a lesson for the Houthis.
He explained that “the message the Houthis should take from Afghanistan is what the Taliban are experiencing now, which is they cannot get anywhere without international support. The Taliban will be associated with the taking down of Afghanistan as they are the new leadership, just as the Houthis will be if they don’t end the fighting and look for international support.”
He said the Houthis cannot do it on their own.
“The Houthis will not be able to control all of Yemen. Eventually they will decide that their future can best be solidified through a political process."