US Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking stressed that American President Joe Biden is leading an intense diplomatic campaign to permanently resolve the conflict in Yemen.
In an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, the vetern US diplomat spoke of “real” progess in the Yemeni file, revealing that efforts are ongoing to ensure that the current improved situation extends for a long time.
Progress in the ongoing discussions is the best opportunity for peace witnessed in years, he remarked.
Lenderking was on a tour of the region to support efforts aimed at reaching a new agreement related to a comprehensive peace process in Yemen.
He said that the UN-sponsored truce that came into effect in April 2022 and which ended in October led to a de-escalation on the ground. This, in turn, helped achieve a lot of the progress witnessed today. Figting has largely abated and cross-border attacks have stopped. Thousands of lives have been saved in the period of calm that is the longest since the beginning of the war.
It has paved the way for intense dialogue between the parties and made progress in trust-building, as demonstrated in the recent prisoner swap between the government and Iran-backed Houthi militias in early April, said Lenderking.
The three-day exchange, ovsereen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, witnessed the release of 887 prisoners by both parties. Saudi Arabia also released 104 Houthi prisoners in a humanitarian gesture.
Lenderking said the US, with coordination from the UN, helped secure the truce. He added that they managed to reach international consensus over peace efforts and supported the renewed regional participation in the peace efforts witnessed today.
He stressed that the US will continue to do what it can to help end the conflict in Yemen as soon as possible. Moreover, he noted that the visit by Saudi and Omani officials to Sanaa was a significant step forward to that end.
The Kingdom’s Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, had led a Saudi delegation in five days of direct talks with the Houthis in Sanaa in mid-April. They focused on the humanitarian situation, release of prisoners, a ceasefire and the comprehensive political solution.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry described the meetings as “transparent” and “optimistic”, revealing that they will be resumed at the closest possible opportunity with the aim of reaching a comprehensive sustainable political solution that is accepted by all Yemeni parties.
Lenderking said the American administration had, from day one, prioritized resolving the Yemeni conflict. He added that since his appointment in February 2021, he sought to include all relevant parties to achieve progress that would end the war.
This is in line with the national security strategy that was adopted by Biden and that prioritizes easing regional escalation and resolving the conflict through diplomacy, continued the envoy.
Diplomatic and humanitarian paths
Lenderking said the US is focusing on the diplomatic and humanitarian paths when it comes to Yemen. Washington is effectively involved with Yemeni, regional and international partners to help reach agreement over peace efforts.
Furthermore, he said Biden’s visit to Jeddah last summer focused heavily of Yemen. Lenderking took part in those discussions during which the US supported the direct Saudi and Houthi participation that is taking place today.
In the past two months alone, the US has been consistently involved in supporting peace efforts in Yemen. Biden has been in contact with Oman, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in contact with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has held talks with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister.
White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf have been continuously coordinating American diplomatic efforts on senior levels in the region.
The US is committed to using all of America’s diplomatic strength to help permanently resolve the Yemeni conflict, Lenderking told Asharq Al-Awsat.
On the humanitarian level, the US remains one of the greatest humanitarian donors in Yemen. In February, Blinken announced the donation of over 444 million dollars as part of a new humanitarian package. In total, the US has donated over 5.4 billion dollars since the eruption of the conflict.
Washington is also working on garnering international donors to fund life-saving assistance to the Yemenis as part of the 2023 UN humanitarian response plan given the large funding gap, continued the envoy.
Difficult road to peace
On whether there is a real opportunity this time to end the eight-year war, Lenderking said the progress in the ongoing discussions are the best chance for peace in years.
The de-escalation has indeed helped save thousands of lives and the US backs any peace efforts in Yemen. The war has gone on long enough and it must be resolved as soon as possible, he urged.
The US clearly envisages an intra-Yemeni political process that tackles all fundamental issues. He acknowledged that the road leading towards this process will be “difficult”, but he remains hopeful that progress will be achieved.
The international community and regional partners are in agreement that resolving the conflict must take place through a UN-mediated intra-Yemeni political process. For its part, the US is working on ensuring that any political process must be joined by recovery efforts that enjoy strong backing from regional and international partners and bolsters economic cooperation between Yemen and its partners.
Leadership Council’s role in continued truce
Lenderking spoke positively of the role played by the Presidential Leadership Council, most notably in consolidating the truce and easing the suffering of the Yemeni people in spite of the ongoing Houthi attacks.
The envoy said the US had previously praised the Yemeni government, led by the PLC, for committing to the truce agreement and in showing restraint against Houthi attacks on Yemeni economic infrastructure.
By committing to the truce, the PLC has helped ease the suffering of the people and paved the way for progress underway today, he remarked.
Lenderking added that the US firmly believes that the Yemenis alone can determine the fate of their country and tackle sensitive issues, such as the situation in the South. The US will support a comprehensive UN-mediated process to tackle these issues and others.
Lenderking said the latest progress in Yemen is a product of two years of intense diplomatic efforts, led by the UN and backed by the US and regional partners.
Commenting on the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties, he stressed that the US welcomes any efforts aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East.
He warned, however, that those who believe that the agreement will lead to peace in Yemen don’t truly understand the relationship between Iran and the Houthis and the nature of the current peace efforts.
The progress in Yemen, including the halt in major Houthi cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia for over a year now, has helped facilitate the Saudi-Iranian agreement, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Since it came to office, the Biden administration has sought direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Lenderking said. Several rounds of talks had been held between the two parties in Baghdad and Muscat.
Iran has pledged to limit some of its destabilizing activities in the region and in turn, this has led to the acceleration of efforts to resolve the Yemeni crisis. It would benefit the whole region if Iran commits to its pledges.
It remains to be seen if its commitments will be translated into action on the ground, stressed the envoy.