US urges Houthis to 'seize opportunity' on peace momentum after envoy's trip to region

Special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking speaks to The National after a trip to the Gulf aimed at advancing peace efforts

Houthi rebels during a military parade in Sanaa, Yemen, on January 5.  EPA
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US special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking is “heartened” about progress made in the peace process after a recent trip to the Gulf, as Washington urges the Houthi rebels to “seize the opportunity” of enhanced peace efforts.

“Conversations regarding a new agreement are continuing, but ultimately we must get the Yemeni parties together to reach a solution on critical issues and help chart a brighter future for their country,” Mr Lenderking told The National.

The special envoy met Yemeni and Saudi representatives, and those from Oman, on a regional trip “focused around supporting UN and regional efforts to secure a new, durable ceasefire agreement and launch a comprehensive, inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni peace process”, he said.

His travel came at a moment of increased momentum in the peace process.

“We and others in the international community are urging the Houthis to seize this unprecedented opportunity to sit down with the Republic of Yemen government to chart a brighter future for Yemen,” Mr Lenderking added when he spoke to journalists on Wednesday.

But Washington's optimism is tempered, he said.

"Stability in Yemen is something that we we wanted yesterday, we're in a situation where despite the positive elements that I've referred to, Yemenis are still suffering," he said, urging the need of a durable ceasefire.

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels reached a UN-brokered ceasefire in April 2022, which they twice renewed.

Despite that ceasefire's official expiration in October last year, hostility levels remain low.

And now, peace efforts are unfolding against the backdrop of improving ties between Riyadh and Tehran, which Iran’s UN mission said could accelerate efforts to renew the lapsed ceasefire.

Groundbreaking China-brokered talks this year led to both countries agreeing to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen both sides' embassies after years of tension and hostility.

But tension endures, and Washington insisted “that the fact is that no agreement between regional actors alone can bring peace to Yemen”, a State Department official told The National.

“The Houthis will not decide whether or not to resume conflict based on Iranian direction,” the official said.

“The conflict is at its core a Yemeni-Yemeni conflict, and only a Yemeni-Yemeni agreement will bring lasting peace.”

Mr Lenderking added that Washington is "looking very closely" to see if Iran "follows through" on the commitments it made to Saudi Arabia in that reconciliation.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, warned last week that “public threats to return to war”, as well as economic warfare between the government and rebels, were undermining peace efforts.

Washington also praised Oman's recently more active role in the peace process.

Saudi and Omani delegations recently held talks with Houthi officials in Yemen's capital Sanaa, as Riyadh seeks a permanent ceasefire to end its military involvement in the country's long-running war.

“Our regional partners have played an important role in de-escalation efforts … we welcome the visit as a positive sign of the parties’ commitment to de-escalation,” they said.

Mr Lenderking also congratulated UN and Yemeni officials for successfully offloading most of the 1.14 million barrels of oil aboard the ageing FSO Safer last week.

The oil on the disintegrating tanker had threatened to cause an environmental disaster that would have lasted for years and had a devastating effect on Yemeni people and their livelihoods.

Washington “will continue to mobilise support from donors to fulfil the remaining $22 million funding gap to scrap the tanker and address all residual environmental threats”, the State Department said in a statement.

“There's more work to be done and we intend to continue full speed ahead with strong US engagement to support a successful conclusion of this effort,” Mr Lenderking told reporters on Wednesday.

Updated: August 23, 2023, 1:36 PM