Amman, Jordan — The man tasked by President Biden with finding a political solution to Yemen’s bloody civil war has said for the first time that the U.S. recognizes the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels “as a legitimate actor,” and accepts that both sides in the conflict bear responsibility for the violence. The remarks by special envoy Tim Lenderking during a Thursday webinar organized by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations were a clear overture toward the Houthis rebels.
It wasn’t clear, however, whether the nuanced shift in Washington’s position could be enough to bring real momentum to a peace process which, after almost seven years of death and destruction, has little to show.
“A legitimate actor”
“The United States recognizes them as a legitimate actor,” Lenderking said of the Houthis. “No one can wish them away or out of the conflict, so let’s deal with realities that exist on the ground.”
“My experience from the Houthis is that they have spoken about a commitment toward peace in Yemen and I think there are certainly elements within the leadership that favor that,” he added.
It was a notable shift in the U.S. government’s tone. For years American officials have blamed the ongoing war — which the U.N. says has claimed almost 8,000 civilian lives and displaced over 4 million people — almost entirely on the Iran-backed insurgency. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. backing, launched the war against the Houthis in defense of Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government in 2015. Since then Houthi forces have cemented control over a huge swathe of northern Yemen, establishing a parallel government in the process.
Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have been accused of waging the war with little regard for civilian lives, including Saudi airstrikes that have hit hospitals and homes and Houthi missiles fired indiscriminately at airports and energy infrastructure.
“The Houthis don’t own the set of violence alone,” acknowledged Lenderking. “Obviously the Saudi-led coalition has borne its share of responsibilities as well.”
A senior U.S. official quickly sought to clarify Lenderking’s remarks, telling CBS News that while “the United States and the rest of the international community, [still] recognize the Yemen government as the only legitimate, internationally recognized government in Yemen… the Houthis control territory, they control people and they must be dealt with. So they are real political actors in Yemen. You can’t pretend they don’t exist.”
A tweet posted to the State Department’s official Arabic-language account on Friday reiterated that message, and stressed that while the U.S. accepts the Houthis will “need to be an integral part of any peace process in Yemen… we remain concerned about the Houthis’ focus on waging war and exacerbating the suffering of Yemeni citizens rather than being part of the conflict solution.”
Cycle of violence
Lenderking returned just last week from his latest diplomatic mission to the region. He met again in Saudi Arabia with Saudi and Yemeni government officials but, so far, in seven visits, he has not held any direct meetings with the Houthis.
The war in Yemen has been centered recently around the oil-rich province of Marib, where the Houthis are fighting to seize the last government-controlled province in the country’s north. The battle has left massive casualties on both sides and hundreds of thousands of civilians are caught in the middle. But like the war itself, it’s a stalemate, succeeding only in putting millions more vulnerable people at risk.
“After more than six years of conflict, Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and millions of displaced Yemenis are only a step away from famine,” the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR warned in its latest global report. “The internally displaced population reached 4 million people, with displaced families facing an acute risk of famine amid violence, collapsing services and protracted displacement.”
“I think we have to break the cycle,” Lenderking said on Thursday. “This is central to my mission: Break the cycle that any Yemeni group or outsider feels that the only way to attain progress is on the battlefield.”
But Nasrullah Amer, head of the Houthi media center and a spokesman for the group, was dismissive of the U.S. diplomatic efforts.
“Legitimacy” and the blockade
“We are not waiting for anyone to recognize our legitimacy as much as a change in behavior by the United States towards our country as a whole,” he told CBS News on Friday. “Instead of recognizing us, they should recognize the suffering of the Yemeni people and try to alleviate it and lift the blockade imposed by the U.S. naval vessels so that there are peaceful solutions.”
The Houthis have long demanded an end to the U.S.-backed, Saudi-enforced blockade of their territory, which includes tight controls on all Yemeni ports and a ban on flights in and out of the rebel-held international airport in Sanaa. The coalition has accused the Houthis of using the airport to smuggle in weapons, which they deny. The flight ban and the shipping embargo have not only limited the flow of vital goods into Yemen’s rebel-controlled north, but also made it harder for Yemenis to get out of their war-torn country.
Amer claimed that “the percentage of [fuel-carrying] ships that entered during the Biden period is very small compared to the ships that entered [during] the Trump era.”
He noted that the Saudi-led war against the Houthis was announced in Washington in 2015, and said that from the Houthis’ perspective, only Washington can end it.
President Biden “has to stop this aggression from the same place from which it was announced, and more visits need serious intentions, otherwise they are worthless,” Amer said. He wasn’t hopeful that Lenderking’s visits would break the impasse: “The issue is very simple: If they stop the raids and lift the siege, the war will end.”
The senior U.S. official who spoke to CBS News said Washington believed the Houthis could and would play an integral part in any interim government agreed to through negotiations. But the official said it would be impossible to get to that stage “through a military process,” and stressed that the Houthis “have to be willing to commit to a ceasefire and talks.”
“The houthis are the primary obstacle — the campaign continuing to refuse to commit to a comprehensive ceasefire,” the official said.