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DJ Biden Launches Fresh Effort to End Civil War in Yemen-- Update

· 02/04/2021 18:02
By Warren P. Strobel

WASHINGTON -- President Biden launched a new initiative to end the six-year civil war in Yemen, appointing a personal envoy to work on peace efforts and announcing an end to remaining U.S. offensive support for the Saudi-led military campaign there.

In his first major foreign policy speech as president, Mr. Biden said that he was appointing Timothy Lenderking, a career diplomat with long experience in Gulf and Yemen affairs, to advance peace talks to end the war, which has sunk Yemen into the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The president, speaking at the State Department, also said U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen would end, "including relevant arms sales." He added the war has created "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe."

The president also issued sharp warnings on rapidly developing crises in Russia and Myanmar, while promising to restore to U.S. foreign policy an emphasis on multilateral cooperation and democratic alliance he said had "atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse."

He also sought to boost morale among the State Department workforce following years of internal turmoil: "This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you."

The president's actions on Yemen include his recent decision to halt U.S. arms sales of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, White House National security adviser Jake Sullivan said, but it won't affect counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the region.

It couldn't immediately be determined what other military aid would be affected. The U.S. in 2018 halted aerial refueling of Saudi military aircraft involved in striking Yemen. Since then, only a limited amount of intelligence collection and sharing, and a small amount of logistical support has continued.

Mr. Biden had signaled during his campaign that he would take a different approach to Yemen and the Saudi-led military campaign there from that of the Trump administration. Mr. Sullivan said that the White House had consulted with senior officials in Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates about its decision.

"We are pursuing a policy of 'no surprises' when it comes to these types of actions," Mr. Sullivan said, "so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it."

Among Mr. Lenderking's first tasks will be to encourage the warring parties to take steps toward a cease-fire. The belligerents include the Houthi rebel force that controls much of the country and a Saudi-led military coalition that backs the internationally recognized government based in the port city of Aden.

Ending the war in Yemen will be extremely difficult work, the senior official said. "It does not succeed without daily attention" that a presidential envoy can give it, the official said.

A senior Saudi official said the country was looking forward to working with Mr. Lenderking "to achieve our joint goal of ending the war in Yemen through a political resolution."

"Based on the commitment to continue support for our defense, we will work with the Biden administration to ensure our ability to protect our borders and our cities is not degraded by the decisions to be announced today," the official said. "The U.S. and the Kingdom are aligned on the end goal, which is a political process that delivers an end to the conflict in Yemen while ensuring that our borders and regional security are protected."

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis' political council, said, "If the U.S. administration is serious about this, I think the aggression will stop," referring to the Saudi-led coalition's offensive.

"The aggression is American in the first place because America stands behind the Saudi and Emirate aggression," he said.

Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations, which warned in November that Yemen faced an imminent threat of widespread catastrophic famine.

Mr. Biden's announcement signals a more active U.S. approach to ending the war and that Washington is casting itself as more of a neutral party. The Trump administration also worked to bring peace to Yemen but generally backed Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, in the conflict. It sold Riyadh weapons and worked to isolate the Houthis, whom it saw as a proxy force for Iran, the chief U.S. adversary in the region.

The Biden administration has already departed from the Trump administration's approach. In addition to ending support for offensive operations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also reviewing whether to rescind the Trump administration's designation of the Tehran-aligned Houthis as a foreign terrorist group. Another U.S. official familiar with the issue said former President Donald Trump's action is likely to be reversed.

Western officials and aid agencies have said the terrorist designation, which took effect the day before Mr. Trump left office, could impede peace talks and make it more difficult to deliver humanitarian aid to the impoverished nation.

Pending a decision on that issue, the Treasury Department last week issued a general license that effectively allows aid groups to continue delivering humanitarian supplies to Houthi-controlled territory without fear they will be prosecuted for working with a terrorist group.

The intent of Treasury's action is "to make sure the Yemeni people have the aid that they need," the senior official said.

The senior administration official said the idea of a full-time American point person in Yemen arose out of quiet diplomacy that the Biden administration conducted in its early days with U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths and others. Mr. Lenderking is expected to work closely with Mr. Griffiths, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Christopher Henzel, who operates out of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh.

"One thing that was missing from the approach was that we didn't have a senior U.S. person who was empowered to work on this full time," the senior official said.

Mr. Lenderking, who is well known in the region, until recently oversaw Gulf and Yemen affairs in the State Department's Near East bureau. Earlier, he was the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and served two tours as a diplomatic adviser in Baghdad.

"He knows the players. He knows everybody who's involved in the Yemen conflict," the senior official said.

Yet Mr. Lenderking faces what U.S. officials and analysts say is a steep challenge in helping to end the war, which began after the Houthis seized control of the capital Sana'a and other areas in 2014, sparking a 2015 military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition.

There have been no U.N.-sponsored peace talks in several years, and the Houthis last year spurned a unilateral truce observed by the Saudis, demanding more concessions.

"The war in Yemen will be an enormous challenge for any new envoy. Comprehensive peace talks have not taken place since 2016, and there remains little political will on the part of the Houthis or the Hadi government to come to the table," said Elana DeLozier, a Yemen specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. "Yemen does not lend itself to quick on-the-job learning, so having someone who already knows the ins and outs of the complex set of conflicts there is essential."

--Gordon Lubold, Stephen Kalin and Salah al-Batati contributed to this article.

Write to Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2021 18:02 ET (23:02 GMT)

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