Special Briefing via Telephone with Timothy Lenderking, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen

MAY 20, 2021

Moderator: Thank you. Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Tim Lenderking, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking will provide updates on diplomatic efforts to advance a resolution to the conflict in Yemen and mitigate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. After his opening remarks, he will then take questions from participating journalists.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.

I will now turn it over to Special Envoy Lenderking for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.

Mr. Lenderking: Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much for joining us around the world. Appreciate very much the opportunity communicate with you, and I would like to make a few opening points and then I’m very happy to take your questions.

I think first and foremost, I want to reaffirm how important the U.S. commitment is to resolving the Yemen conflict. It’s reflected in the fact that President Biden made this an early priority of the administration. It’s reflected in the fact that he appointed a special envoy. It’s reflected in the fact that the envoy has been empowered to travel during COVID and without restrictions other than those imposed by host countries. And it’s reflected in the fact that there is substantial U.S. Government support for a resolution of the conflict – not just the Executive Branch, the President, but also Congress.

So in that vein, I have made now five trips out to the Gulf Region, various countries. Had contact with all of the Gulf countries in one way or the other. Have also been in very close contact with European partners. And on my last trip, traveling with both the UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, and U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, which I think really showed the alignment between the branches of the U.S. Government and the United States and the United Nations. And I do think, as an observer, as a keen observer of the Yemen conflict for the last six years, I haven’t seen this level of alignment between the administration and Congress. It’s a very important moment that we have to seize.

Similarly, I’ve made a point in all my travels of meeting with the P5, the principal members of the UN Security Council. There’s very strong alignment in the P5 also toward a resolution of the Yemen conflict. And this is a very important development I think that I would like to stress.

Many of you have been tracking the agreements and the various discussions that we’ve been having. We were disappointed, frankly, that on the last trip to Oman, the Houthis declined to meet with the UN special envoy. And it wasn’t just that particular meeting that was problematic. It’s a trend, where the Houthis, while showing constructive engagement on a number of occasions with different stakeholders, have then backtracked or, as we say in sports terminology, moved the goal posts to what has been agreed to. And there won’t be a peace deal without strong Houthi support. And we have gone out of our way as the United States, first by un-designating the organization, second by putting some constraints on support for the offensive capability of the Saudi-led coalition. Strong signals that the United States wants to do things in Yemen in a different way. But there have to be willing partners on all sides to engage.

The President and the Secretary sent me to Saudi Arabia on the last trip to speak with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, specifically to take our concerns and our issues to the highest levels of Saudi Government. We need to have that same sort of access to all parties, not just the United States but the United Nations, most importantly. It’s the United Nations that’s driving the plan and putting together the best prospects for a peace agreement.

Similarly, we’ve been troubled by the fact that the Houthis continue to fight in Marib. Marib, despite their predictions, did not fall during the month of Ramadan. It’s not falling now, and it’s not going to fall anytime in the foreseeable future. So the Houthis are not winning in Marib, and instead, they’re putting a great deal of stress on an already very fragile humanitarian situation. They’re putting the lives of 1 million internally displaced people – these are people who have already fled from war in Yemen – they’re putting their lives in danger as well.

And we all know that at the end of the day, if you’re going to have a true breakthrough on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, you need a number of things. You need donors to step up. That’s partly why in all of my trips, being generous to support UN appeals and other international engagement on the humanitarian track is something that I have stressed. But you also need to have a ceasefire. You need to have time when there’s de-escalation and there’s serious engagement on a ceasefire, and that’s something that I think we particularly call on the Houthis to do, engage on a ceasefire.

The offensive in Marib is not going anywhere. There’s a significant amount of intimidation of Yemeni tribes and families that’s involved to get young men to go to the battlefield. They’re not dying for a valuable cause, in the view of the United States and in the view of the international community. I think the international community has become more and more aligned on the fact that the Marib offensive is deeply troubling, and also counter to claims by the Houthis to want to make peace.

Let me also inform you all that the United States today will be imposing sanctions on Muhammad Abd Al-Karim Al-Ghamari, the head of the general staff of the Houthi militia forces, who is leading the Houthi offensive on Marib, and also Yusuf al-Madani, prominent leader of Houthi forces and the commander of the so-called fifth military zone, which includes Hudayah. As of 2021, Al-Madani was assigned to the offensive on Marib. If there were no offensive, if there were a commitment to peace, if the parties were all showing up to deal constructively with the UN envoy, there would be no need for designations. There would be no need for cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia. There would be no need for the Saudi-led coalition to continue to strike targets inside Yemen, which also puts civilians at risk.

Lastly, I want to say that when we talk about the humanitarian situation, it is a fundamental pillar of the United States that all economic arteries, all ports, all airports in Yemen should be open for commerce and for the access for vital humanitarian supplies. So any blockages, any restrictions placed on the flow of goods into Yemen, which are vital both for the economy and for the people of Yemen, we oppose. And we call on the parties both to keep the – to ensure that these vital arteries are open, and also to ensure that once on the ground and off-loaded, that any supplies and commodities are able to move to their destinations without any obstruction.

So I’m going to pause there, and I’d be happy to take your questions. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you, Special Envoy Lenderking. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.

So our first question, from a pre-submitted question, is from Mohamed Ali Mahrous from Almushahid.net in Yemen, and he asks: “Special Envoy Lenderking, how different has your role been from the role of the UN Envoy Martin Griffiths, and how do you coordinate with the UN, and what other regional parties are you working with?” Over to you, Special Envoy.

Mr. Lenderking: Thank you, Mohamed, for the question. We are very closely aligned with the United Nations, and that should be clear from the fact that we frequently meet with leaders in host countries together. We consult on a daily basis, and we remain fully aligned on the objectives of the UN peace plan.

That said, we are not the United Nations. We are the United States. We have our own voice. We have our own perspective. We have our own expertise. We have our own views on the conflict and how to resolve it. And in that regard, we are very clear with the United Nations, very open conversations that we have with them, about the way forward. And it’s an excellent relationship, and we have great respect for the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next caller is – our next question is going to go to the live queue, and that’s going to be to Ms. Tahani Aljehani from Alhadath.

Question: Yes. My question is: So far, why we don’t see an international will or decision to issue an immediate resolution that obligates Houthis to stop fighting over Marib?

Mr. Lenderking: Thank you for the question. I mean, Marib, as you know, has become an increasing focus of international efforts. You had condemnation of the offensive in Marib from the United States, from the UN Security Council, from the P5, and from other international actors as well. The Houthis are completely isolated when it comes to the Marib offensive. They are against world opinion on this. And again, I want to stress the point that without a ceasefire – which is not only Marib but there are other areas of fighting around the country as well – without a ceasefire, we don’t get to the kind of humanitarian relief for the Yemeni people. This is the only way to ensure that the Yemeni people get the sort of humanitarian relief that they require.

So I would stress that there is growing into support for an end to the offensive.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question goes to Ms. Zainab Fattah. Operator, please open the line. Operator, do we have Ms. Zainab Fattah from Bloomberg, please?

Operator: Yes. That line is open.

Question: Hello? Yes. Hi. Sorry, I was muted. I wanted to ask you regarding the talks between the Saudis and the Iranians on what we understand that there is a lot of – a lot of it has to do with the situation in Yemen. Can you tell us the parameters of those discussions or what the U.S. would like to see happen there?

Mr. Lenderking: Well, thank you. I think that the Saudi Arabia tension with Iran and vice versa is one of the big stress points in the region. And so we appreciate Saudi Arabia coming forward and engaging directly with the Iranians. We are not a part of that discussion directly, as you know. But it also hearkens back to, I think, an important softening of tone in the Saudi crown prince’s interview some weeks ago both toward Iran and both toward the Houthis.

So I do think that this is potentially a constructive engagement, and we wish both parties success because it will be not only good for the overall tensions in the region, but there should be positive impact on the Yemen conflict in particular.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is a pre-submitted question from Mr. Mustafa Nasr from Yemen. And he asks about the U.S. humanitarian aid that is being provided to Yemen and if you could speak a little bit about that. Over.

Mr. Lenderking: Well, thank you. As you know, the U.S. is consistently one of the largest donors to the Yemen conflict. So I’m proud of my fellow Americans and the taxpayer for coming forward in the way that they do to support a distant conflict and the suffering that’s going on there. I believe that that support will continue and I think that the U.S. intends to lead by example, that as we ask other donors to contribute more generously and to fulfill their pledges that have been made at various donors’ conferences, that the United States will continue to lead in this respect.

Since the beginning of this conflict, the United States has funded more than $3.4 billion toward relief in Yemen, and that includes across many sectors of the Yemeni economy and the Yemeni social structure and for COVID relief as well.

Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question will be from the live queue and goes to Ms. Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya.

Question: Good morning. Thank you so much for doing this interview. So I was just wondering if this designation today of these two militias or head of militias of the Houthis, what practically it means? Is this kind of a pressure trying to stop them or hold their attacks and night raids? Because technically these people don’t have a U.S. bank account, they don’t travel to the U.S. So what does this mean practically?

And second, if I may quickly, would you consider or reconsider putting the Houthis back on the terrorist list as some kind of leverage trying to force them to negotiate since that you started saying that they refuse to meet and there is no peace without the participation of the Houthis? Thank you so much, Tim.

Mr. Lenderking: Thank you, Nadia. On your first question, I will refer you to the Department of Treasury for further details on this announcement that will be forthcoming. But I do want to stress as you noted and was clear in my opening remarks, these two individuals are both heavily implicated in the Marib offensive. And it’s a way of signaling[1] them out but also showing to the international community that the United States does have levers to press and that the United States is dissatisfied with the Houthi actions in Marib, but again, the Houthis are out of step with the international community on this issue.

With regard to the FTO, the foreign terrorist organization designation, I mean, we constantly and continually assess Houthi behavior and Houthi actions and are prepared to take whatever steps are appropriate in response to Houthi behavior. And let me also say that Houthi willingness to engage with the UN envoy and show a commitment to peace is something that would also be responded to positively by the United States.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Mr. Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra.

Question: Yeah, good morning. Thank you for doing this call. First, was Senator Chris Murphy is meeting with the Iranian ambassador at the UN coordinated with the Department of State, especially with you, Mr. Lenderking, especially when the senator asked Iran to pressure the Houthis to end the war in Yemen? And do you expect Iran to pressure the Houthis for free? And my last question: Was it a mistake to take the Houthis out of the terrorist organizations list?

Mr. Lenderking: Yeah, thank you, Michel. Obviously, Senator Murphy is a United States senator and he’s a free actor and he can meet with whomever he wants. I would say that during our trip we had substantial opportunity to learn more about the Yemen conflict together, to have meetings about the current state of play, and to coordinate – and to coordinate our messages. So, in fact, those entities that are able to meet – those entities and individuals and countries who are able to meet with the Iranians and press the urgency of a resolution to the Yemen conflict, we certainly welcome that, and it’s not just Chris Murphy but others who are doing that.

And I do – we would welcome, obviously, any change toward the positive side from the Iranians on the Yemen conflict. Thus far we don’t see it. We see continued Iranian support for the Houthi military effort both in Marib, both across the border, in trading and supplying sophisticated weaponry which inflames the conflict.

And lastly, with regard to the designation, it’s very important I think for you and our callers to understand that there was a very strong humanitarian factor taken into consideration when the Biden administration lifted this designation. This was in no way meant to reward the Houthis, but it was to take into account the negative humanitarian impact of the designation and to take into account the views of the many humanitarian actors who spoke to us about their concerns about the impact on the ground in Yemen.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question, also from the live queue, goes to Muath Alamri from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Question: Thank you so much. Since the Houthis refused to meet with the UN envoy, Mr. Griffiths, on his last trip in Oman, I remember that you – once you said you are willing to meet them if they want. So have you met them, and what makes you confident, Mr. Tim, that Marib is not going to fall? Thank you.

Mr. Lenderking: Well, thank you. As you know, we have met with the Houthis over the years on a number of occasions and at different levels, and certainly there is no restriction from the administration on my meeting with them, and I consider that to be a constructive engagement. And let me stress again that the Houthis have an important role to play in Yemen, and we’re eager to get beyond the military conflict so that the Houthis can play that role and begin to talk about – begin a real conversation and a sustained conversation that brings Yemenis together to decide the future of their country. That is not for us, the United Nations, or anybody else. We want to facilitate that, and I think the international community has a responsibility which it is eager to meet to create that platform so that Yemenis can be talking together. And we’re all impatient to get there. And as the fighting continues, it becomes more difficult to get to that very important objective.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. I believe we have time for one more question. Our last question comes from the live queue and it’s from Mr. Mohamed Elahmed from Al Jazeera.

Question: Hello, can you hear me?

Operator: Your line is open.

Question: Yes, hi. Thank you for doing this, Mr. Special Envoy. I have two questions, indeed. There is or there are reports coming from Vienna of a potential breakthrough, major breakthrough like a deal in the making between Iran and the P5 group. How confident or how hopeful, Mr. Special Envoy, that any breakthrough between Iran and the United States in Vienna would impact this situation in Yemen in particular? And also, the Houthis have been increasing their attacks on Saudi Arabia in the last couple of weeks. Do you think, Mr. Special Envoy, that the Houthis are trying to have the upper hand in those talks by stepping up their pressure on Saudi Arabia? And do you also think that they are trying to upper hand their negotiating position by stepping up those attacks on Saudi Arabia? Thank you so much.

Mr. Lenderking: Well, thank you. The U.S. has been participating in talks with our European, Russian, and Chinese partners to identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, with Iran, as you know. And we think that a mutual return to compliance is in our interest and it’s in the interest of regional stability, but it would really only be the beginning of our work with Iran. And so as we address the other elements of Iran’s destabilizing behavior, we will uphold our interests and we will stand by our friends in the region. We’re committed to consulting closely with our regional partners regarding U.S. policy on Iran. We support dialogue among the countries in the region in the interest of security and stability. And again, the point I made earlier: If Iran wants to show it can be a reasonable actor, now is the time to start doing so by not meddling and fueling the conflict in Yemen, and by supporting peace talks.

With regard to your question on Houthi attacks on KSA, they’ve been very consistent over the years, but they’ve been especially aggressive I think in the last few months. The scale and the pace, the frequency of the attacks has increased over the last few months. The Houthis already have a strong negotiating position and it is not worth sacrificing more Yemenis to gain further benefit for their negotiating position. Let’s end the war now. It’s time for the Yemeni people to have a chance to decide their future. In order to do that, we need to have the parties come together. And if the Houthis are going to continue to obstruct, then it will be visible to the entire world which party is not favoring peace in Yemen.

Moderator: Thank you, sir. Now, Special Envoy Lenderking, if you have any closing remarks I’ll turn it back over to you.

Mr. Lenderking: Well, thank you very much. I do want to stress again the commitment of the administration. I’ve talked a lot about a ceasefire and the importance of it, but the U.S. commitment goes beyond a ceasefire. There have to be political talks. The United States is ready to play a constructive role in bringing parties together and encouraging parties. We will continue to be a strong – among the strongest humanitarian supporters of Yemen. We will continue to call out any party that is obstructing the peace effort. And we will continue to support a long-term solution to the Yemeni conflict.

In the end, the Yemeni people need to have this dialogue. And what the United States is committed to is helping the UN and the other international actors get to this place where the Yemeni people can come together and decide the future of their country.

Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.

Mr. Lenderking: Thank you.