Special Interview: There is “a very strong consensus” in favor of extending the truce in Yemen, according to US envoy Tim Lenderking
RIYADH: There is a very strong internal and international consensus in favor of extending the truce in Yemen, with all countries in the region supporting a peaceful resolution, not a return to war, said Timothy Lenderking, the special envoy American for Yemen. Arab News.
If the Houthis opt for a military solution, they will be completely isolated, he said in an interview with Arab News in Riyadh, where he arrived on Saturday as part of a diplomatic effort to extend a negotiated truce. by the United Nations in Yemen into a permanent arrangement. .
Lenderking is also expected to continue rallying support for UN efforts to raise awareness of the threat posed by the stricken oil storage vessel, Safer, in the Red Sea, and the funding needed to tackle the environmental time bomb.
After more than seven years of war and humanitarian crisis, the truce between the Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen, and the UN-recognised government has been extended for two to six months and has largely held.
Lenderking sees the extension as an opportunity for the Iran-backed Houthis to show good faith and goodwill and respond to the Yemeni people’s desire for peace.
“From what we know after talking to Yemenis in Yemen and around the world, there is no appetite for a return to war. No one can wish that to happen,” he said.
Lenderking, a career foreign service senior who was selected for the post of special envoy by US President Joe Biden on February 4, 2021, said the United States recognizes the leadership shown by the Yemeni government in terms of flexibility to facilitate entry. oil-derived vessels in the port of Hodeidah.
Lamenting the fuel crisis that resulted from the Houthis’ “modification of standard operating procedures” through which oil supplies are channeled into Yemen, he said: “This created a problem and immediately produced long lines of gas in Sanaa as we saw before the truce.”
Washington does not support any bureaucratic procedures that impede the flow of oil, Lenderking said, adding that the unhindered free flow of oil to Yemen is a longstanding and fundamental position for the United States.
Recognizing that the government’s role in facilitating the entry of tankers into the port of Hodeidah is a key part of the truce (which came into effect on April 2 this year), he said the movement of oil had an immediate and positive impact on Yemenis.
“It cuts fuel lines, powers food mills, and brings fuel to hospitals and schools and, in fact, the entire transportation network. This is one of the cornerstones of what we believe has been a very successful truce,” he said.
Illustrating his point, Lenderking said 21,000 passengers flew from Sanaa airport on commercial airlines for the first time since 2016, and more destinations will be available.
Moreover, as a result of the truce, he said, there are 60% fewer civilian casualties in Yemen – another development which he said demonstrates what the agreement can bring in terms of tangible benefits to the Yemeni people.
The Houthis publicly pledged to abide by the terms of the truce when it was extended on August 2, and according to Lenderking, the United States is counting on them to continue supporting the deal coming in October in an expanded format.
“We see all of these (pillars of the truce, including tankers and commercial flights) developing after October, bringing additional benefits to Yemenis and really changing their lives in a very positive way,” he said. .
Lenderking said the international consensus exists among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the Chinese, the United States, the Russians, who all view this conflict the same way – that pressing issues need to be resolved. in a political context through negotiation.
He said even Iran has welcomed the truce in each of its iterations and that there is a considerable amount of international attention focused on Yemen at the moment, especially heading into October.
Elaborating on Iran’s role in the conflict, Lenderking said the relationship between the Houthis and Iran was primarily “lethal”, with the Iranians sometimes encouraging the Houthis to launch attacks.
“They supported the Houthis in developing their military capability, their UAV capability. And it was very negative,” he said. “It fuels rather than tempers the conflict.”
Nonetheless, Lenderking expressed hope that Tehran would match its words – welcoming the truce and supporting an extended ceasefire – with actions in supporting the current positive trajectory.
He urged Yemen and its leaders to embrace the possibility of peace – through a truce, a lasting ceasefire and political negotiations – without delay.
“There’s a lot at stake here,” he said. “When we talk about the conflict in Yemen, you not only have the livelihoods and the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, but you also have American lives in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf that are put at risk by the attacks on these countries. .
“We have seen oil and other infrastructure in these countries attacked by the Houthis.”
All things considered, according to Lenderking, the time has come for Yemen and its leaders to embrace the possibility of peace – through truce, a lasting ceasefire and political negotiations.
Besides the war, another Yemen-related issue of growing international concern is the fate of the derelict ship FSO Safer. In recent months, the UN, with support from the United States and the Netherlands, has raised $70 million in contributions for the safe transfer of oil stored in the Safer.
The Safer, decaying off the port of Ras Isa north of Hodeidah, is believed to contain 1.1 million barrels of oil, four times the amount that leaked into Prince William Sound in Alaska following the disaster of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
The ship’s structure has been exposed to moisture and corrosion with little or no maintenance since the start of the war in 2015.
Lenderking, who is spearheading the rescue effort, is optimistic about averting what he described as an ‘imminent disaster’.
He said that there is considerable support not only from countries in this region, but also from Europe and the United States, which is one of the largest donors to the initiative, with a pledge of 10 million dollars, alongside Saudi Arabia and other countries.
“Clearly, an oil spill four times the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez will be devastating to the Red Sea coastline, through which much international trade passes,” Lenderking said. “It will worsen the humanitarian situation in Yemen if ports along the west coast are blocked to oil vessels.”
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According to Lenderking, the private sector has done a good job, but could do more to support the decommissioning effort, which he said would benefit international trade, maritime diversity and commerce, in addition to helping Yemen recover from the humanitarian crisis.
The first phase envisages the evacuation of oil from the Safer to a more secure vessel. However, neither the funding ($80 million) for this phase has been completed, nor a reliable political agreement in place.
Nevertheless, Lenderking believes that the rescue initiative is worthwhile, noting that much progress has been made since its launch and expressing satisfaction with the leadership including Saudi Arabia, the United States, the Netherlands, the UN and other donors have shown up in the matter.
“We’re not there yet, and of course the key is to get the oil out of the Safer before the tanker explodes or starts leaking, and that’s really the problem and it could happen at any time. “, did he declare. “I mean the experts have been warning about this for years.”
Lenderking stressed it was the first time there had been an agreement to move oil from the Safer to a safer vessel, a goal he is “confident” will be achieved this year.
“It is a realistic goal, and I believe that at the United Nations General Assembly later this month there will be an event that will mark the progress made and call on donors to continue to support this effort,” did he declare.