A two-month truce that began April 2 is holding so far and giving rare hope to Yemenis who have suffered through a now six-year war.
"I am encouraged," said US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor. The "parties have taken some significant steps here, significant compromises to agree to this truce."
And "the truce is largely being adhered to," he added. "The amount of violence and military activity has dropped off precipitously after April 2. This is a huge development for Yemenis that allows open corridors, more access for humanitarians."
Lenderking, who was appointed envoy on Feb. 4, 2021, credits the Biden administration’s "strong emphasis on diplomacy and restoring key relationships" as instrumental in the recent progress.
Among those "key" US relationships is Saudi Arabia, which Lenderking acknowledges as having some past and present "rough patches."
On Yemen, however, "there is a real determination to work together."
"The Saudis recognize that this war has gone on too long; they are eager to end it," added Lenderking, who served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Riyadh from 2013-2016. "I don’t think they’ll end it on any terms, but they are showing, I think, a real determination and commitment to ending the conflict, and that’s borne out in the compromises that they and the other side have made to protect and nurture this truce."
Asked whether the Biden administration has completed its review on whether to re-list the Ansar Allah movement (known as the Houthis) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), Lenderking said, "Humanitarian considerations continue to be an important factor in any decision. … Right now, our focus is on securing the truce, which is having tangible impacts on millions of Yemenis, enabling the flow of essential goods, improving freedom of movement, facilitating humanitarian access and saving lives."
Lenderking referred to reported progress in Iran-Saudi talks in Baghdad last week as "positive" and said that the United States is encouraging Riyadh to "keep at it."
While Iran welcoming the truce is a "positive step," Lenderking said that "what we'd like to see, of course, is the Iranians exhibit the type of constructive commitment to Yemen that they say exists in Tehran but which we do not see carried out in practice."
"It’s certainly possible" that an Iran nuclear deal could help facilitate the Yemen peace process, said Lenderking. "I do think that if the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) talks that take place in Vienna, which don't have a Yemen component to them, succeed, that could help improve Iran’s role in the region. There could be good progress made in terms of Iran's relationship to the Gulf countries."
"But again, I'd be very cautious," he added. "We haven't seen that."
Lenderking, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, said "there are numerous back channels at play in the Yemen space, which I think are very important both in terms of building confidence and establishing key relationships and will be the bricks and mortar of a future deal going forward."
Lenderking cited Oman’s role in Yemen, especially with regard to the recent release of prisoners and the prospect of future releases and exchanges.
"The fact that the president (Joe Biden) highlighted Yemen as an early conflict that the United States wanted to devote more attention to has proven to be the right choice."
Looking ahead, Lenderking said that "the challenge is to safeguard the accomplishments that have been made with the truce, building toward a durable cease-fire. There's a lot of responsibility that goes on the parties themselves. In fact, that's maybe where the core responsibility is. But the United States can be counted on and is committed to continuing this very strong effort in Yemen, and realizing these gains and working toward a better future."
A transcript of the full interview, conducted by Al-Monitor president Andrew Parasiliti, follows. It has been lightly edited for grammar and consistency.
Al-Monitor: On April 1, the two-month truce was announced in Yemen at the start of Ramadan. Since then, we have seen, if I have this right, a significant reduction in violence in civilian casualties, no confirmed airstrikes, more fuel flowing through the Hodeidah region ports and preparations for commercial flights from Sanaa airport controlled by the Houthis. This is still delayed, but there is talk. For the first time since 2016, as well as the Houthis signing an action plan with the UN to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in the war, and attacks on schools and hospitals, we also saw the Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, step aside in favor of a Presidential Leadership Council.
Ambassador, how encouraged are you with these developments, and what do you see as the next steps to keep the process moving ahead?
Lenderking: Well, thanks for having me on, Andrew. I am encouraged. The conflict parties have taken some significant steps here, significant compromises to agree to this truce. I mean, bearing in mind that before April 2 and even in late March, there was some pretty heavy fighting going on in and around Marib and across the Saudi border as well. A lot of activity in March. So the fact that the conflict parties could agree to freeze in place as called for by the truce. And as you rightly pointed out, the truce is largely being adhered to. The amount of violence and military activity has dropped off precipitously after April 2. This is a huge development for Yemenis that allows open corridors, more access for humanitarians. Humanitarians are reaching pockets of people who have not been reached for the last six years. So, there is real tangible impact to the truce. And our determination, our commitment is to work with the UN to extend it, work it into a durable cease-fire and pair it with political talks.
Al-Monitor: How would you characterize relations among the Saudis, the new Presidential Council and the Houthi representatives? Are they in the same room negotiating? And if not, what are the steps to bringing them together?
Lenderking: I think that we take one step at a time. The relationship between the Saudis and the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), is very positive. Just yesterday, the head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi, met with King Salman and with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah. And there have been a number of important meetings. More importantly, this council has been convening in Yemen. That's been an issue with the government of Yemen over the last several years. They've mostly lived in exile, not only in Riyadh but in other capitals around the Middle East such as Cairo and so forth. So the parliament had not convened in many years. But what you have after the swearing in of the new PLC a couple of weeks ago, attended by many diplomats and by the UN special envoy, you have a strong show of unity by this new Leadership Council, demonstrating a commitment to Yemenis and to tangible relief from the war.
And coupled with the economic support that they've received from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the political support that they're getting all around the world, and particularly around the Gulf region from the GCC countries, this all bodes well. But I would simply say that none of this is permanent. It's not fully set. This is a fragile situation. And this kind of circumstance that I described needs a lot of international support.
Al-Monitor: There are now regular reports of friction in US-Saudi ties over a number of issues. You travel regularly to the kingdom and meet with senior Saudi officials as much or more than just about anyone in the Biden administration. Is this reported friction affecting your engagement with the kingdom on the Yemen war? And how do you assess the state of US-Saudi ties based on your engagement on Yemen?
Lenderking: The US-Saudi relationship is a very important relationship for the United States and for Saudi Arabia. And over the years, it has born benefits to the Saudi people and to the American people. There have been rough patches very clearly recently, not just in this administration but in previous administrations. What I find is that on the Yemen portfolio, there's a real determination to work together. There's a sense that Saudis recognize that this war has gone on too long; they are eager to end it. I don't think they'll end it on any terms, but they are showing, I think, a real determination and a commitment to ending the conflict, and that's borne out in the compromises that they and the other side have made to protect and nurture this truce and take the other steps that go along with it; the movement of fuel ships into Hodeidah port, which has had an immediate impact by the way in terms of lowering fuel prices, bringing fuel within the reach of more Yemenis, powering the infrastructure, getting fuel to the hospital, getting cooking oil to families that need it to take care of their own circumstances. And then the truce also calls for commercial flights in and out of Sana'a airport. And we need to see those happen.
Al-Monitor: Is the administration still considering re-listing the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO)?
Lenderking: Well, a few months ago, the president said that the FTO was under review. And humanitarian considerations continue to be an important factor in any decision, as they were in the decision to revoke the FTO when the Biden administration first came in. Right now, our focus is on securing the truce, which is having tangible impacts on millions of Yemenis, enabling the flow of essential goods, improving freedom of movement, facilitating humanitarian access and saving lives. I mean, this is why this truce is so important and why this is a decisive moment for Yemen.
And indeed, the parties must adhere to the terms of the truce. They have publicly committed to the truce on April 2. We need to see that the truce is built upon so that we can achieve a comprehensive cease-fire and an inclusive political process.
Al-Monitor: We are hearing that there was some good progress in the Iran-Saudi talks in Baghdad last week, including regarding Yemen. There's talk about 10-point memorandum regarding the next steps in Iran-Saudi ties. What is your understanding of what was agreed with regard to Yemen? And more broadly, what would you like to see Iran change, and are you seeing change in Iranian behavior? And what more can and should Iran be doing to support the process?
Lenderking: Talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran are a positive thing. And indeed, I would say there are numerous back channels at play in the Yemen space, which I think are very important both in terms of building confidence and establishing key relationships and will be the bricks and mortar of a future deal going forward.
The Saudis and the Iranians talking and resuming talks after a hiatus is a positive thing. I know these talks aren't easy. We encourage the Saudis to keep at it. We know that there is a Yemen component, as you said, Andrew, to these talks. And that's very important for both countries. What we'd like to see, of course, is the Iranians exhibit the type of constructive commitment to Yemen that they say exists in Tehran but which we do not see carried out in practice.
What we do see is smuggling, arming and encouraging the Houthis to launch cross-border attacks. We'd very much like to see an end of this and Iran play a positive role in Yemen. I was very glad to see that they welcomed the truce on April 2. That was a positive step, both Saudi Arabia and Iran welcoming this positive development. That doesn't happen that often in this region. And at the same time, the unity I think that exists between the Gulf countries on Yemen can be an important bulwark, if you will, to ensure that Iran does play a more constructive role.
Al-Monitor: Would an agreement on an Iran nuclear deal facilitate progress on Yemen, in your opinion?
Lenderking: It's certainly possible. I do think that if the JCPOA talks that take place in Vienna, which don't have a Yemen component to them, succeed, that could help improve Iran’s role in the region. There could be good progress made in terms of Iran's relationship to the Gulf countries. But again, I'd be very cautious. We haven't seen that. And the infusion of cash to proxy groups that the Iranians fund could have a further destabilizing impact on Yemen. So we want to be very, very vigilant about Iran's behavior going forward.
Al-Monitor: You've partnered with UN Humanitarian Coordinator David Gressly to raise funds for the Daryl FSO Safer oil tanker ahead of May 11. You both were recently in the Gulf together working on this and other issues. This is a humanitarian economic and environmental concern. Can you give us an update on how that's going?
Lenderking: Yes, indeed. I mean, there is a pledging event on May 11 at which donors will be asked to support a UN plan, which is based on a memorandum of understanding that was signed between the UN and the Houthis back in March. And this is the first real positive step that we've seen to make change with regard to this tanker, 1.1 million barrels of oil on board. This aging tanker has not been maintained for seven years because of the war and has been sitting off the Yemen coast as an oil terminus since the mid-1980s. This tanker is well past its prime. There's a serious risk of it breaking up or exploding or leaking in the coming months.
That's why this particular issue is so urgent and why I partnered with David Gressly, the UN humanitarian coordinator. We toured Gulf capitals last week to see what we could do to raise the funds to offload this oil onto a safer vessel. And that's very much our goal. And I think it's one that this administration is very solidly behind.
Al-Monitor: There's been some good news and some unfinished business with regard to prisoners and detentions in Yemen. Oman has played a key role in the release of 14 detainees held by the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition is releasing 163 prisoners as a goodwill gesture, or you may have an update on this. There are also the US and UN locally employed staff that continue to be detained in Sana'a by the Houthis. How are the talks proceeding on those that have not been released? Do you see the prospects for more releases, especially as we approach the end of Ramadan? And can you tell us more about Oman's role in this process?
Lenderking: We're very hopeful that with the positive momentum that we've seen with regard to the truce, the movement of fuel ships that I mentioned and the positive impact it's having in Yemen, that other aspects of this conflict, access to Taiz which is a city that's been under siege for several years and prisoner releases, for example, could be very important confidence-building steps. So we're very supportive of the work of the conflict parties, the International Committee for the Red Cross, the efforts that the Omanis are making to release prisoners and other detainees, as you note.
There was a release of a UK national this past weekend and also the crew of a UAE-flagged vessel that was detained by the Houthis back in January. That crew was released unharmed over this weekend. We also have, as you mentioned, we have eight current staff, local staff who are employed by the US government to help protect and look after our former embassy property in Sana'a, which we vacated when the Houthis took over the capital seven years ago. And those individuals had been held incommunicado along with five former local staff. This is an entirely unacceptable situation for them to be, first of all, detained, but then with no contact with their families, no charges, no reason why they were detained and harassment of other staff to go along with it. So we've called on the Houthis to do the right thing, which is to release these individuals immediately and unharmed.
And I would just simply add, Andrew, that the Omanis have been playing an important role in this area and indeed with regard to the Yemen conflict in general.
Al-Monitor: Last question. How do you see the role of diplomacy over the past year? You came into office, the Yemen war was raging. It was considered, labeled the worst humanitarian conflict in the world by the UN secretary-general. President Biden within a month, within weeks, of taking office made ending this war a priority and appointed you special envoy. Give us a kind of big picture where you see the role of diplomacy working with the UN and your hope for the next year as envoy.
Lenderking: Well, this administration came in, Andrew, as you say, with a strong emphasis on diplomacy and restoring key relationships and so forth. And the fact that the president highlighted Yemen as an early conflict that the United States wanted to devote more attention to has proven to be the right choice. Because I do think we've played a very substantial role here. I'm glad that we can point to successes as a result of our engagement. And I think this is all a tribute to the fact that the United States has good relations in the region and also can get things done in a positive way. So I look at our efforts to really galvanize international intention and support for Yemen as being significant.
Now the challenge is to safeguard the accomplishments that have been made with the truce, building toward a durable cease-fire. There's a lot of responsibility that goes on the parties themselves. In fact, that's maybe where the core responsibility is. But the United States can be counted on and is committed to continuing this very strong effort in Yemen and realizing these gains and working toward a better future.