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Fighting in Yemen must de-escalate before talks can begin, U.S. diplomat says


In October of last year, sometime after the chaotic collapse of Afghanistan and sometime before the threat of war in Europe, the United States received a harsh reminder of another conflict. It's a civil war that has gone on for years on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Yemeni rebels who control the capital city began rounding up some of their own citizens in October. The detainees were people with a connection to the United States. We heard about this when we talked with Tim Lenderking, who is President Biden's special envoy to Yemen.

TIM LENDERKING: They have detained a number of our Yemen local staff who used to work for us when we had our embassy there up to 2015 when we evacuated. And the fact that they have detained local staff and five former local staff is, in our view, an indication of a party that hasn't quite made the determination to make peace.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Lenderking's task is to end, if he can, a civil war that has become a regional war. U.S. ally Saudi Arabia backs one side and Iran the other. The United Arab Emirates is in there on the Saudi side, and several Yemeni factions control several parts of the country. Millions of people are suffering famine. Recently, the group known as the Houthis pushed out of the capital city and fought their way over the mountains toward a city the Saudis have counted on as their main base.

LENDERKING: They are very much trying to protect the last stronghold of the Yemen government in Marib, which is a city about 100 kilometers east of the capital, Sanaa, where you have some oil platforms. You also have a very large IDP population there. And Saudi Arabia's and the Yemen government have worked together to try to maintain this stronghold from intense Houthi pressure.

INSKEEP: The Saudis and their allies beat back the Houthi attack in recent weeks, but then the Houthis began using drones and missiles to attack the United Arab Emirates. One of them hit a fuel depot in Abu Dhabi and killed three people.

LENDERKING: Well, unfortunately, I mean, there's been a whole pattern of attacks by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and more recently the UAE. And Saudi Arabia, of course, is attacked on almost a daily basis. We saw more than 400 attacks against Saudi Arabia this past year, and that pattern is continuing. Saudi Arabia is viewed as - by the Houthis as an aggressor, despite the fact that the Saudis have offered, in March of last year, a cease-fire, a unilateral cease-fire.

INSKEEP: You said that the Saudis would like to bring this conflict to a conclusion, but it seems perhaps to have grown worse in recent years. Is that fair to say?

LENDERKING: I think it has grown worse, and that's for several reasons. One, I think the Iranians have found this a very convenient way to harass Saudi Arabia. And so they've put muscle into this conflict as well, and they've perpetuated it. And I think secondly, you have the fact that the Saudis have launched airstrikes into Yemen.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Iran. They have been accused of supporting the Houthi rebels, and it does seem that the Houthis have become more and more well-armed with ballistic missiles and with drones over time, right?

LENDERKING: No, that's true. And the Houthis are very creative in how they're able to assemble parts that are smuggled into Yemen from various sources. So the Iranians get a big bang for the buck from their support for the Houthis. And indeed, over time, their relationship with the Houthis has grown even stronger. What this points to, I think from our point of view, is the importance of de-escalation - to get the various parties to de-escalate and pivot to political talks.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one more thing before we get to U.S. policy because you mentioned the Saudis launching periodic airstrikes into Yemen. There was a recent airstrike that struck what was described as a detention center run by the Houthi militias. Medical groups say about 70 people were killed there. The Saudis eventually said it was some kind of special security camp, suggesting that it was a legitimate target. But haven't there been an awful lot of civilian casualties over the years because of the Saudi bombing campaign?

LENDERKING: Well, there have been, unfortunately, civilian casualties caused by both sides. And obviously, with this terrible strike on this detention facility, the United States came out very strongly condemning this attack and also really focusing on the importance of protecting civilians. So when I was out in Saudi Arabia just last week, this was a big focus of my conversation with the Saudi leadership.

INSKEEP: Does this remain an excruciating dilemma for the United States? - because you've said as a matter of policy, the United States would like this war to end. But it is being waged by a vital U.S. ally that the United States is not going to stop being friends with.

LENDERKING: Well, it's a two-way street because even though the Saudis are a combatant, they're also being attacked on a daily basis, as I mentioned. And I think a major factor for us is not only protection of an ally, but we do have 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia, many of whom have been there for decades working in various parts of the Saudi economy. And so it's vital. I think it's the foremost foreign policy priority of this administration to protect those American citizens in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates.

INSKEEP: There are different factions that control different parts of Yemen at this point. The Houthis, of course, have that capital and a large part of territory. There are groups backed by the Saudis who control a key city and some other parts of territory. There are groups backed by the UAE. What does a peace settlement look like? Who ends up in charge?

LENDERKING: To some extent, these groups are going to have to define that themselves. I mean, Yemen is a challenging country in that central government has seldom been effective. And so our effort is really to provide a platform where Yemenis can talk to each other and make decisions about the future of the country.

INSKEEP: What are your most frustrating moments when you're dealing with all of these different warring parties and trying to get them on the same page?

LENDERKING: I think the challenge is different parties who claim to want peace in Yemen but not finding common ground. There is recognition, including among the Houthis, that there's no military solution. So the longer the parties continue to fight, the more Yemeni civilians are suffering and the farther off a political future looks. And so I find it difficult that the parties don't seize the moment to take advantage of the opportunity to make peace.

INSKEEP: Tim Lenderking is the U.S. special envoy for Yemen. Ambassador, thanks so much. Always a pleasure talking with you.

LENDERKING: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOEUR'S "CONTACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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