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US Aid Package for Yemen Announced as Houthis Again Say No to Talks

The Biden administration remains active on the humanitarian track in Yemen, while playing the waiting game on the political track.

The State Department and the US Agency for International Development jointly announced a new $165 million humanitarian aid package for the war-torn nation on Monday, as international efforts to bring an end to the six-year conflict there have reached a stalemate.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels continue to rebuff entreaties by the administration of US President Joe Biden to enter peace talks. Instead, the rebels are moving forward with an offensive aimed at capturing the Yemen government’s last stronghold in the north, Marib, in an oil-rich province.

“The Houthis’ single-minded focus on the offensive in Marib has undermined UN efforts to reach a comprehensive cease-fire. This offensive is putting millions of people at risk and poses a grave threat to the humanitarian situation. Moreover, the Houthis are not winning in Marib. The situation is stalemated and many are questioning why the Houthis should continue an offensive that is just leading to pointless death and destruction,” US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking told reporters in a conference call to announce the new aid.

“And when that reality dawns on people and dawns on the Houthis, I think it will force them to realize that the continued isolation and the fact that the conflict in Marib is stalemated will pull them back, and I hope bring them to the negotiating table in a more constructive way because the benefits of peace for all will be evident,” Lenderking also said.

The conflict in Yemen, now called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, started with the 2014 Houthi takeover of the capital city of Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition supported by the US and allied with the Yemeni government has been battling the rebels since early 2015. The Biden administration said in its early days that it was ending any support for the Saudi offensive operations in the war, launching, together with congressional allies, a scathing indictment of the Saudis’ handling of the conflict, specifically in its killing of Yemeni civilians. Since then, the US has been partnering with the Saudis to help negotiate an end to the war, something that may have helped get the kingdom into the White House’s good graces after those dark early days of the relationship.

“It’s actually been quite a few years that Saudi Arabia was looking to end conflict, going back to the end of the (then-US President) Barack Obama administration and (then-Secretary of State) John Kerry’s last-minute efforts to negotiate a solution. The Saudis would welcome a resolution and return to the political process,” Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, told The Media Line. Feierstein, a career diplomat, served as US Ambassador to Yemen from 2010-2013 before his tenure as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the US State Department.

The Biden administration quickly lifted the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation that the administration of then-US President Donald Trump had placed on the Houthis, ostensibly to assure the continued flow of aid without facilitators fearing sanctions, but also, as some experts claim, as a goodwill gesture to the Houthis in order to kickstart negotiations. It seems to have bought the US little.

“Not that I’ve seen,” said Feierstein, when asked whether the FTO de-listing had any positive impact on the crisis.

“Rather than responding positively to new US policy, the Houthis launched new attacks. It became clear to the new administration and among others that the obstacle to peace was not the Saudis, but was the action of the Houthis. You’ve seen a massive decline of criticism from the administration since,” Feierstein said.

Earlier this week, the Houthis’ lead negotiator criticized Lenderking for making no recent progress in his dealings with the Saudis, and preemptively said there would be no talks with newly-confirmed UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grunberg, without an immediate lifting of coalition-imposed air and sea blockades on Houthi-held areas.

There is a new perspective on this stalemate in Yemen; a new view that the Houthis, through association with Iran, are stalling, to see what new direction the government will take, to clarify, to see the direction the nuclear accord negotiations go in, to get some new demand signals from Tehran.

Still, even as Lenderking praised the Saudis, he openly blamed both sides for a chronic fuel shortage that is handicapping food and aid deliveries, driving up food prices and aggravating a massive famine.

“What I do sense from the Saudis is a genuine desire to end the conflict. That doesn’t mean that there’s complete alignment on everything, and we need to continue to narrow those gaps where we can. I’ve mentioned the importance of lifting the fuel restrictions in the ports – that’s something that the Saudis can help us with – the Yemeni government can help us with,” Lenderking said, placing an emphasis on the crucial port of Hodeida, currently controlled by the Houthis.

“It’s very important that that happens and so that we do not face problems with the fuel restrictions. It goes to power mills that produce food. It goes to hospitals. It goes to the transportation network that Yemenis rely on and that transporters use to get economic goods moved around the country. … At the same time, the fuel, once it arrives into Yemen, must be distributed in a way that no party, including the Houthis, takes advantage of it or stockpiles it, which drives up black-market prices, and that’s a way that people profit from the war in a way that is unconscionable,” said Lenderking.

He urged the continued involvement of an array of regional players, including Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE and the Saudis once co-led the anti-Houthi coalition, but currently face strained ties following the Emiratis’ 2019 withdrawal and with its continued support for non-government-backed Yemeni fighters that it trained. Lenderking took special note of Oman Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who has been looking to maintain his country’s role as a quiet, behind-the-scenes mediator, negotiator and facilitator in the region following the death last year of the previous sultan, Qaboos bin Said.

“I think that constructive engagement – you look at the Omanis traveling to Sanaa for a week to spend time with the Houthis. I hope there will be more of that kind of engagement, and I think that over time and as the military situation remains stalemated, that the Houthis will be more willing to negotiate on and look at the specific terms that the UN – the new UN envoy brings forward,” Lenderking said.

“I’m convinced that the Omanis want to see the conflict ended and that they’re putting more skin in the game. And I say that because I see that the new sultan is engaged in a very helpful way. As you know, he traveled to Saudi Arabia just last month – it was his first international trip – and there were discussions there on Yemen, which I think were very constructive,” said Lenderking. “I think we’ll be counting on the Omanis and relying on the Omanis going forward for more of the type of direct engagement that they have demonstrated, and I consider that a major asset to us,” he added.

Unless and until it becomes clear that the offensive on Marib will not succeed, there is less incentive to come back to political negotiations

Of course, the one regional player the US isn’t looking to for help is Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor.

“There is a new perspective on this stalemate in Yemen; a new view that the Houthis, through association with Iran, are stalling, to see what new direction the government will take, to clarify, to see the direction the nuclear accord negotiations go in, to get some new demand signals from Tehran,” posited Feierstein, repeating a theory held in some diplomatic circles.

“At the same time, unless and until it becomes clear that the offensive on Marib will not succeed, there is less incentive to come back to political negotiations. The coalition must demonstrate that there is no military solution to the conflict,” said Feierstein.

Meanwhile, the new US funding will allow the UN World Food Program to keep providing emergency food assistance to 11.5 million Yemenis monthly, according to USAID official Sarah Charles, who also briefed reporters on Monday. Over half of the funds will come via the American Rescue Plan, a US federal government stimulus and COVID-19 recovery plan, with the food grown by American farmers. The US is the largest aid donor for Yemen, providing $3.6 billion since the onset of the conflict.

UN pledging conferences have repeatedly fallen far short of their goals as donor fatigue set in. Lenderking said Monday’s announcement served in part to again sound the alarm about the humanitarian cost of the conflict, and possibly set the stage for another round of international fundraising at next month’s UN General Assembly.