US ‘energising’ talks to end Yemen war: Special envoy

The US pivots from Trump-era foreign policy as special envoy confirms talks with Houthi rebels to end Yemen civil war.

Houthi supporters shout slogans during a rally against the US designation of Houthis as a foreign 'terrorist' organisation, in Sanaa, Yemen on January 25, 2021 [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The United States special envoy to Yemen has said Washington is “aggressively” using back-channel discussions to speak to the leadership of the Houthi rebels in an effort to end the country’s long-running war.

“We’re working now to energise international diplomatic efforts with our Gulf partners, the United Nations and others to create the right conditions for a ceasefire to push the parties toward a negotiated settlement to end the war in Yemen,” Timothy Lenderking said at a State Department briefing on Tuesday.

“We do have ways of getting messages to the Houthis and we are using those channels very aggressively as we’re engaging … in person with the leadership of the key countries involved,” he continued.

The move is part of a broader reset on the US policy towards Yemen and the wider Middle East.

Yemen’s conflict began in 2014 when the Houthis launched an attack on the capital, Sanaa, that saw President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi deposed.

In March 2015, a military coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) entered the conflict in an attempt to roll back the gains made by the Houthis.

The war has killed more than 100,000 people and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The former administration of President Donald Trump, which maintained close relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, labelled the Iran-aligned Houthis a “terror” organisation, which the Biden administration rescinded on Tuesday.

The Biden administration has also said it ended offensive support of the Saudi Arabia-led forces in Yemen, though exact details remain murky.

Then-Deputy Chief of Mission Tim Lenderking looks on as US and Saudi officials meet at the US embassy in Saudi Arabia, on July 22, 2015 [File: Carolyn Kaster/Pool via Reuters]

The war has battered Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation. According to the UN, 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people depend on humanitarian assistance to survive.

The dire humanitarian crisis is compounded by a Saudi-led blockade of Yemen’s ports that began in 2017, after the Houthis fired missiles at the kingdom.

The blockade has caused widespread starvation and been decried by international organisations, as well as the US and the UN. In December, the UN warned that famine-like conditions had re-appeared in parts of Yemen, with almost half the population experiencing high levels of food insecurity.

The frontlines have largely been in stalemate for years, but in recent weeks the Houthis have resumed an offensive to capture Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last northern stronghold some 120km (75 miles) east of Sanaa.

On Tuesday, the UN’s humanitarian chief said on Tuesday he was “very alarmed” by the Houthis’ advance, saying an assault on Marib could cause harm to two million civilians lead to the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands.

The consequences would be “unimaginable”, Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, wrote on Twitter.

Lenderking referenced Lowcock’s statement during the briefing, saying the Houthis’ move for Marib “is going to push an already stretched humanitarian infrastructure beyond the breaking point”.

Source: Al Jazeera