America’s Yemen envoy slams Houthis for spurning peace
A hearing held last Wednesday by the US Congress revealed important elements of America’s Yemen policy, as well as how lawmakers from both parties view the crisis. The Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism questioned Timothy Lenderking, the new special envoy for Yemen, about his peace efforts since taking on this role in February. It was his first public testimony in his new role.
While the panel members expressed great confidence in Lenderking, they raised questions about the Houthis’ violent escalation within Yemen and against Saudi Arabia after the administration announced changes in its Yemen policy, including reduced military support. They also raised the alarm about Iran’s support for the Houthis.
President Joe Biden announced Lenderking’s appointment in February, with a mission to “end the war in Yemen” and support the UN-led initiative to “impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks.”
Ted Deutch, the subcommittee’s chair, a Democrat, expressed support for Biden’s policy, adding that addressing the crisis in Yemen was crucially important for US foreign policy and stability in the Middle East, and that US leadership was important to bring about a political solution to the crisis.
While working toward a political solution was important, panel members also pushed for improving the humanitarian situation. Deutch pointed out that Houthi attacks on Marib are exacerbating the misery of internally displaced persons (IDPs). He called for the Houthis to “immediately stop their assault on Marib,” stop violating the human rights of the Yemeni people, and stop obstructing aid deliveries. Deutch also blasted them for “manipulating fuel supplies and diverting customs revenue to their war effort in violation of the Stockholm Agreement.” He criticized their close ties with Iran and their continued attacks on Saudi Arabia, adding that those attacks were inconsistent with the search for peace. To be treated as a legitimate group, the Houthis must engage in dialogue and the peaceful search for a solution.
Rep. Joe Wilson, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, questioned the administration’s contacts with the Iran-backed Houthis, citing their violations of international humanitarian law and their treatment of those who come under their control. Wilson cited their escalation since the Biden administration took office, as missile attacks against Saudi Arabia — a “long-term, valued ally of the US” — went up from only three in January to 25 in February to 70 in March. He praised Saudi Arabia’s peace initiative and stressed that the conflict in Yemen cannot be solved without addressing the “regional threat from the terrorist regime in Iran.”
Other subcommittee members cited the continued attacks on Marib, with weapons smuggled from Iran, including missiles and drones, being used against civilians and IDP camps. They stressed that Yemen should not become a partisan issue, especially as the Houthis were doing Iran’s bidding and becoming mere proxies for Tehran.
Lenderking explained that the Biden administration has prioritized bringing an end to the Yemen conflict and charged him with reaching a durable solution and mitigating the humanitarian crisis. He is pushing for the twin goals of a ceasefire and political negotiations. Through active engagement, he has been able to achieve a greater international consensus than ever before, as the UN Security Council enjoys an unusual unanimity on solving this conflict. He called for “leveraging” that consensus, stressing that only through a unified international effort can there be success. As an example, he cited the need for the Houthis to live up to their Stockholm Agreement commitments, especially using the Hodeidah port’s revenues to pay civilian salaries.
However, while the internationally recognized government has accepted the Saudi initiative for a ceasefire and peace talks, more work is needed to convince the Houthis to put down their guns and engage politically, Lenderking said, as they “remain focused on continuing their military assault on Marib.” The Marib offensive is the biggest threat to his efforts, as well as the biggest challenge for its 2 million residents, most of whom are IDPs. “If we don’t stop the fighting in Marib, it will contribute to another cycle of humanitarian suffering,” Lenderking added.
Panel members called on the administration to ensure the protection of Saudi Arabia’s territory from missile attacks, and stressed the need for decisive engagement with US partners in the region to disabuse the Houthis of their apparent belief that there is a military solution. Lenderking pointed out the increasing number of attacks against Saudi Arabia, which exceed 150 drone and missile attacks so far in 2021. He highlighted the danger those attacks pose to civilians in Saudi Arabia, including more than 70,000 Americans, and said that the US is making sure the Kingdom is able to defend itself.
Asked about the Houthis’ goals, Lenderking said they were divided: Some talk about a political solution, but facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Despite the constructive US engagement, their attacks have escalated in Yemen and across the border, and their record in areas under their control has been very poor, with mass arrests, forced conscription, the use of child soldiers, and harassment of UN aid workers.
The panel asked Lenderking what the US could do to stop weapons smuggling from Iran. He said that Central Command is using “all available resources” to identify and interdict weapons smuggled by Iran to the Houthis, and there have been some successes. However, Yemen’s long and rugged coastline is not uniformly guarded. He cited the need for greater cooperation from regional and international partners.
To be treated as a legitimate group, the Houthis must engage in dialogue and the peaceful search for a solution.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On Iran, Lenderking said he had not seen any signs of Tehran wanting to play a positive role in Yemen and argued against tying Yemen’s fate to the nuclear talks.
While the focus is on getting international consensus to stop the Marib offensive, so far the Houthis have shown commitment and determination to capture the city, Lenderking told the panel. A panel member said that he did not see how the Houthis would relent now, when they perceive the US as reducing its military commitment to their adversaries.
Asked whether he had any doubts that Houthis were Iranian proxies, Lenderking said that their ties with Iran were significant and negative, but at times they showed some independence, claiming that their Iran ties were transitory. However, he stressed that, if they want to continue to associate themselves with this “terrorist regime,” those ties bode poorly on the prospects for peace and security.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1