Yemen Cease-Fire Extension Has Cascading Regional Impact
US envoy to Yemen sounds notes of cautious optimism that long-term deal can be struck
With a spotlight shining brightly on recent tensions and opportunities in the US-Saudi relationship, the State Department’s special envoy for Yemen was relatively effusive in his praise for Saudi Arabia’s role in the recently announced cease-fire extension in Yemen.
“I think resolving the Yemen conflict is a core challenge and desire of both Saudi Arabia and the United States. And I do think that the Saudis have engaged very positively since I was appointed. I’ve probably been to Riyadh 15 or 16 times. I think the Saudis have shown interest and commitment, have made some tough, tough compromises here that would not have been possible, in fact, a year ago. And, of course, this is a fusing together of Saudi and US priorities,” said Tim Lenderking in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.
“I see this as a very rich area for the US and Saudi Arabia to continue to make progress, and I see that this has a positive impact on the relationship. And I think the fact that Saudi Arabia played a critical role in securing an extension of the truce, first announcing and then extending, has been evident. This has generated one of the most peaceful periods in this conflict,” added Lenderking.
The long-running conflict in Yemen, brought on by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, has not only been a humanitarian catastrophe, but has contributed to a deterioration in the relationship between Saudi Arabia – which has led a coalition against the Houthis – and elements of the US government, including the administration of President Joe Biden and a broad cross-section of Congress, merging hard-left progressives with right-wing isolationists in their displeasure with Saudi Arabia’s execution of the war.
Yemen fell into a civil war in late 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized control of several northern provinces and forced the Saudi-backed Yemeni government out of the capital, Sanaa.
Biden, who vowed to make the Saudis a “pariah” during his election campaign as a result of the country’s human rights violations, has been largely rebuffed by the kingdom’s leadership when he has needed it most during the recent oil crisis brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A visit to Saudi Arabia by Biden has been put on hold until at least next month, as the White House reportedly deliberates its posture heading into any potential meeting with Saudi leadership.
The two-month extension of the cease-fire in Yemen, brokered by the US and United Nations, with strong regional backing, may help to create an opening for some measure of détente between Washington and Riyadh.
“The Saudis have been looking for a way to end the conflict for a half-dozen years. They have always been willing to agree to cease-fires, and have been supportive of negotiations, of UN efforts. Praise for the Saudi role is legitimate. For President Biden, I’m sure there is a certain amount of diplomatic engagement there, but any praise coming from his administration (for the Saudi role in helping to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen) is not facetious,” Gerald Feierstein, former US Ambassador to Yemen, told The Media Line.
This is the best opportunity Yemen has had for peace in several years.
Lenderking, who traveled to Aden last week with new US Ambassador to Yemen Steve Fagin, noted the extended cease-fire, on the heels of a pair of previous two-month agreements that largely held, opens the widest door yet for a longer-term, more durable solution to a conflict with a number of regional aspects. The truce has enabled the flow of essential goods, improved freedom of movement and facilitated humanitarian access, including the re-launching of commercial flight routes to and from Cairo and Amman, used by those eager to travel for leisure or to seek medical attention abroad.
“This is the best opportunity Yemen has had for peace in several years. To move forward on the path to peace, the conflict parties must not only implement the terms of the current truce – including urgently opening roads to Taiz – they must agree to a permanent cease-fire and begin a comprehensive and inclusive political process that durably ends the war. So, we urge the parties to continue to choose peace over continued war, suffering and destruction,” said Lenderking.
The ending of the Houthi siege of Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, is still being negotiated. The opening of roads in and out of Taiz is seen by the US as a critical element of any durable agreement.
Lenderking also expressed grave concern for the circumstances surrounding the Safer oil tanker, a ticking time bomb of an environmental and humanitarian disaster. The tanker, seized by the Houthis in 2015, has largely rusted without proper maintenance and is essentially beyond repair. Sitting 37 miles north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, the Safer is holding more than 1 million barrels of light crude oil. Experts fear a leak or explosion, both seen as just a matter of time, would have catastrophic implications for the Red Sea and for Yemen’s crucial fishing industry. A Safer oil spill would be four times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
The US and UN are leading a fundraising effort in order to safely offload the oil, while the Houthis are using the ship’s precarious situation as a bargaining chip. The Houthis are still holding 13 Yemenis who worked for the State Department’s embassy staff. Retired embassy and USAID employee Abdulhameed Al-Ajami died in Houthi custody last month.
“We condemn this unjust detention of Abdulhameed and the others, many of whom have not been allowed to contact their families. And the fact that Mr. Al-Ajami had to die away from his family in this circumstance is, indeed, very regrettable. We demand the Houthis immediately and unconditionally release these loyal public servants, who are all Yemenis,” said Lenderking.
Still, the Houthis are in perhaps their weakest position in some time, which is a major reason they agreed to a cease-fire and further negotiations.
“Early in 2022, coalition forces – particularly forces supported by the United Arab Emirates – were able to win some military victories on the ground in Marib and in the Shabwah Governorate. The Houthis believed they were making significant gains, but it stalled out,” said Feierstein.
He added that: “The second thing is the Saudis and Emiratis, along with the international community, were able to work out an evolution of the governance in Yemen. (Embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour) Hadi stepped down. Rashad al-Alimi, a well-regarded person across the spectrum, stepped up and became head of the Presidential Leadership Council, which brought together disparate elements, including the Southern Transitional Council (a secessionist organization in South Yemen) and militia leaders, all together under one umbrella. It was very significant.”
The Saudis have been looking for a way to end the conflict for a half-dozen years. They have always been willing to agree to cease-fires, and have been supportive of negotiations, of UN efforts. Praise for the Saudi role is legitimate.
Lenderking noted that while, ultimately, the Yemenis will need to make peace among themselves, the international community has played a critical role in moving the process forward, including those parties with divergent interests.
“You have numerous countries around the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, both welcoming the truce. You have the OIC (Organization for Islamic Cooperation) and other large multilateral groups that are welcoming and supporting the truce – the UN Security Council. This kind of unity I think is something that we have not seen bringing to bear its leverage on the political tracks and on elements of the truce. And so, we’re going to need to call on all those parties plus the regional actors – the Qataris, the UAE, the Omanis – to continue to wedge in from the outside to support the parties to reach the best possible outcomes,” said Lenderking.
While Iran welcomed the new cease-fire extension, which is set to last through August 2, Lenderking was critical of Tehran’s role in serving as the Houthis’ benefactor, which ultimately resulted in the launching of missiles in terror attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The attacks, and the lack of an urgent and strong American response to them, served to further degrade relations between Washington and its partners in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
“I was very pleased that Iran welcomed the truce. That was a very good sign. The United States would like to see Iran play a positive role in Yemen. Hitherto they have not done so. On the contrary, they have fueled the conflict, they have armed and trained and encouraged the Houthis to fire at civilian targets in their own country and in Saudi Arabia and in neighboring countries. They have helped smuggle lethal material into Yemen. This is not the direction that Yemen needs to go. Yemen is trying to turn its corner away from a devastating conflict and move toward peace. So, let Iran support that effort,” said Lenderking.
The comments came during a particularly tense time between Washington and Tehran, with negotiations over the countries’ re-entry into the Iranian nuclear accord stalled out, and both sides trading accusations that the other is unwilling to do what is necessary to reach an agreement.
A lot of Yemenis are skeptical that the Houthis may ever really agree to put down their weapons and participate in the political process
In fact, Feierstein says, the Houthis’ desire to be a version of Hizbullah, another Iranian proxy that has wreaked havoc around the region while contributing to causing and exacerbating an economic and political paralysis at home, may ultimately lead to a lack of a durable agreement in Yemen.
“A lot of Yemenis are skeptical that the Houthis may ever really agree to put down their weapons and participate in the political process. The Houthis see themselves as a Hizbullah-like organization that would participate in political life, but would still be a state within a state, and would still be an enduring threat to stability. Their record of living up to agreements is pretty bad,” said Feierstein.
“On other hand, you don’t have an alternative. There won’t be a military solution to this conflict. The Houthis won’t be defeated on the battlefield,” he added.