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US Yemen envoy: Houthi attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia is 'greatest fear'

The US special envoy for Yemen gave an update to Congress on the Biden administration’s efforts to engage with Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Houthi forces in the war-torn country.
US special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking, accompanied by State Department spokesman Ned Price, right, speaks via teleconference during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Feb. 16, 2021.

The US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, testified before Congress today on the war in Yemen. He specifically addressed US diplomatic progress on ending the war, risks to American citizens, and involvement by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the conflict.

Lenderking, who was appointed by US President Joe Biden in February, spoke before the Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a virtual hearing on the Yemeni civil war and the accompanying humanitarian crisis, as well as efforts by the United States to solve both issues.

Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014. The Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, is fighting Houthi rebel forces, which are supported by Iran. The war has led to economic misery and famine-like conditions, not to mention civilian deaths from the fighting and the COVID-19 situation in the country. Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses and impeding humanitarian deliveries. Houthi forces also regularly conduct cross-border attacks on Saudi territory.

This month, Saudi Arabia proposed a cease-fire to end the fighting, but Houthi forces rejected it. The United States is presently working to build support for a cease-fire. The US military also continues to provide defensive support to Saudi Arabia, despite increasing criticism from Democrats in Congress of the US-Saudi relationship. In February, Biden said he ended US support for offensive Saudi operations in Yemen. Last month, the United States resumed sending aid to Houthi parts of the country.

Lenderking began his remarks by saying the administration’s diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen are making progress, touting a “greater international consensus and “more proactive engagement” from other outside parties, including in Europe and neighboring Oman.

“The UN Security Council has an unusual amount of unanimity,” said Lenderking. “This will be crucial for the peace process.”

Lenderking characterized the ongoing Houthi offensive to take the western city of Marib, where more than a million displaced people live, as the “single biggest threat to peace efforts.” He also called on both Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces to allow humanitarian and fuel deliveries to move freely within their respective territories.

Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia questioned whether the United States could be a meaningful mediator in the conflict given extensive US support to Saudi Arabia for several decades, including in the Yemen war.

“Some have argued that the US can’t be a neutral arbiter given our past support for Saudi activities in Yemen. How do you overcome that perception?” he asked.

Lenderking responded by saying he can only represent US interests in Yemen and that all parties have been receptive to his appointment.

“The most important activity I can do is defend US interests in Yemen,” he said. “I haven’t seen any party unwilling to engage us.”

Connolly then asked the envoy if he had actually spoken with any Houthi officials since assuming his position. Lenderking, a longtime State Department official, did not confirm when exactly he spoke to his Houthi counterparts.

“Over the past several years, I’ve met with Houthi representatives on a number of occasions. It’s important to be able to continue to do that,” he said.

Later on, Lenderking said he believes some elements of Houthi leadership want a dialogue with the United States, but that this is not seen in their military actions yet.

“The Houthi movement is somewhat divided. Elements are supportive of the engagement we are encouraging and don’t necessarily see a military solution. What we see on the ground is different,” he said, citing the “continued assault on Marib."

In contrast, Lenderking said that Saudi Arabia is receptive to US efforts to end a war. He said Riyadh is “indeed open to negotiations” when asked about this by Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee and praised the Saudi’s March cease-fire proposal. Lenderking also said the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia now have a “greater acceptance of a Houthi role in post-war Yemen” than they did previously.

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who is the top Republican on the subcommittee, mentioned the threat of Houthi cross-border attacks to the tens of thousands of Americans working in Saudi Arabia.

“It is our greatest fear Americans could be killed in a Houthi attack,” said Lenderking, who added that preventing this is a “priority” for the Biden administration.

“Americans have no idea how many Americans could be at risk with an extraordinary increase in attacks by Houthis with Iran into Saudi Arabia,” said Wilson in response.

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California pressed Lenderking on whether the United States has actually stopped support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.

“Is the US currently supporting any military operations of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Lieu asked.

Lenderking responded by saying that military affairs are not his domain.

“I’m not totally in that information loop, congressman. So I can’t really speak to that.”

Lenderking also shined a light on the administration’s view of the precise nature of the Houthi-Iran relationship. He characterized the Houthi view of Iranian support as one of necessity and not necessarily genuine friendship in response to a question from Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

“The Houthis have at various times shown independent action. The Houthis themselves have conveyed to many interlocutors that they only maintain a relationship with Iran because nobody else helps them,” said Lenderking.

“When we get this conflict resolved, that will really test this proposition. If the Houthis want to continue a relationship with a terrorist state like Iran, that’s gonna bode extremely poorly for prospects for peace and security,” he added.

Lenderking said throughout the hearing that the US focus must be on ending the fighting, as this is the only thing that can stop suffering in Yemen.

“The humanitarian system cannot restore the economy or repair broken health systems,” he said. “Only through a durable end to the conflict can we begin to reverse the crisis.”

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