‘This is the best opportunity for peace in Yemen since the war broke out,’ US special envoy tells Arab News

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Updated 24 January 2024
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‘This is the best opportunity for peace in Yemen since the war broke out,’ US special envoy tells Arab News

  • On the sidelines of UNGA, Tim Lenderking discussed how truce might pave the way for an end to conflict
  • He said “I am 24/7 on Yemen. Yemen is my goal. It is my heart’s mission. It is my team’s mission”

NEW YORK CITY: On their first official visit to Saudi Arabia since the Yemen war erupted in 2014, a delegation of Houthi rebels held talks in Riyadh over a five-day period last week on a potential agreement that could hasten the end of hostilities.

Progress has been reported on many of the main sticking points, including a timeline for foreign troops to leave Yemen, and a mechanism for paying public servants’ salaries. A full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, along with reconstruction efforts, was also among the issues discussed.




Houthi soldiers march during an official military parade in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on September 21, 2023. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, praised the meetings — the highest-level, public negotiations with the Houthis in the Kingdom in the past nine years — as “a moment of opportunity.” The Saudi government “welcomed the positive results of the serious discussions.”

But despite the general decline in violence in Yemen, UN officials have cautioned that the situation on the ground remains “fragile and challenging” and “the front lines are not silent.”

According to Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen since February 2021, Washington is working tirelessly to end the conflict, which has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands, and left 80 percent of Yemen’s population dependent on humanitarian aid.




Tim Lenderking

“I am 24/7 on Yemen. Yemen is my goal. It is my heart’s mission. It is my team’s mission,” Lenderking told Arab News in an interview in New York City on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly.

“It’s the (Biden) administration’s mission to see that this terrible war, which has displaced and killed so many people and distracted the region, can be brought to a close in a just and comprehensive manner.”

Although the past year has been marked by both humanitarian challenges and de-escalation in Yemen, Lenderking, a career diplomat whose official title is deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs, has generally voiced optimism since the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels reached a truce agreement in April 2022.

Last year on the sidelines of the 77th General Assembly, a few months after the truce came into effect, he told Arab News that the benefits accruing to the Yemeni people had opened the door for a durable ceasefire to be agreed in the following months.

FASTFACTS

Tim Lenderking said meetings held by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Yemen show the international community’s determination to move the peace process forward.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman reaffirmed the Kingdom’s “commitment to promoting dialogue among all parties” when he met Houthi negotiators during their recent five-day visit to Riyadh.

“My optimism last year was not misplaced because after the truce we have continued in a period of de-escalation that has lasted 18 months, with no cross-border attacks,” Lenderking said.

“Recall the pace and the fury of those attacks in the earlier days of the war, including more than 400 attacks from Yemen in 2020. The commercial capital’s airport, Sanaa, has been open for commercial flights. Those have expanded from three to six per week.”




Smoke billows from a Saudi Aramco's petroleum storage facility after an attack in Jeddah on March 26, 2022. (Reuters/File)

Lenderking described the development as “a drop in the bucket,” but added that “it still represents good progress and tangible benefits” for the Yemeni population.

“After all, these are two sides who have been fighting intensely for the past several years. And to have them talking and visiting and spending days in each other’s capitals is a very important development,” he said.

“No one’s saying there is a breakthrough, but it appears that these contacts were positive enough that they will continue. We are very keen to see them drive to positive results, begin to untangle the distrust that has prevailed. They are going to have to live together eventually.”

He added: “The considerable efforts that have been exerted very positively between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, that needs to transition to the UN-led process. We want to move beyond the current truce — which is very positive but not enough — into a durable ceasefire and Yemeni-Yemeni political talks.




Ships are docked for unloading in the Yemeni port of Hodeida on March 5, 2023. (AFP)

“This is how Yemen’s future gets decided. Not by the outside powers. Not by one party in Yemen dictating to another. (It) has to be an inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni process. And there is an international consensus behind this and supporting it.”

Lenderking said that the presence of Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council, in several meetings involving the US and the P3 (the three permanent members of the Security Council: US, UK and France), underscored the strong signals of international support for his leadership.

All these factors provide reason to believe that with international backing, progress toward a UN-led initiative and Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue is possible in the near future, he said.

(At the UNGA general debate on Thursday, Al-Alimi urged the international community to do more to stop the flow of arms and resources to the Houthis, and warned that “the institutions of Yemen will not have the necessary resources to deal with these cross-border challenges” if funds are not directed to recognized governmental financial institutions.)




Rashad Mohammed Al-Alimi, chairman of Yemen's Presidential Leadership Council, addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2023. (AFP)

Asked whether the Saudi-Iran rapprochement played a role in bringing the warring Yemeni parties to the present point, Lenderking said that much of the groundwork that was done to achieve and maintain the truce was well in motion even before the Chinese-brokered deal between the two Middle East powers was announced on March 10 this year.

“What we are looking to see from the Saudi-Iran deal is whether Iran’s posture toward Yemen has changed. Is it moving away from smuggling lethal weapons and aid for the Houthis that fueled the war effort, violating Security Council resolutions? And is Iran going to support a political solution?” Lenderking said.

“We hear that they are moving in this direction. We have seen some positive public statements from Iran. A new posture from Iran toward Yemen supporting the positive trajectory would be well received by the United States.”




Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman (R) meeting with a delegation of Yemen's Houthis in Riyadh last week. (SPA)

The fact that the Houthis have chosen not to resume hostilities despite the lapse of the truce is of great significance, Lenderking said, adding that this could point to a change in the Houthi mindset while the extended phase of de-escalation continues.

He believes the group has demonstrated a refreshing willingness to release detainees and engage in discussions with the opposing party in the context of military committees.

This level of engagement “was not happening at this pace throughout the entirety of the war; this is the best opportunity for peace that Yemen has had since this war broke out almost 10 years ago. And that’s why US efforts are so energetic and so vigorous at this point,” he said.

“Here in New York City, Secretary Blinken (had) at least three meetings that focused on Yemen while he was here. Bear in mind the (extensive list of topics on the) international agenda in New York: climate, Russia-Ukraine, other humanitarian considerations. So, Yemen is getting some time here among world leaders, which we think is very positive.”




Displaced Yemenis receive sacks of food aid supplies at a camp in Hays district in the war-ravaged western province of Hodeid on April 20, 2023. (AFP)

Although diplomatic channels between the US and Russia have been all but cut off since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there is no disagreement among the P5 on the way forward in Yemen.

The P5 are united on the need for a political solution, and this unity is a “great asset for us to have,” Lenderking said.

“The Security Council has shown considerable unity, a strong support for (Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen Hans) Grunberg’s efforts, support for (the) humanitarian crisis. This is a blessing. We really have to take advantage of the fact that there is this united positioning between key players.

“We don’t take anything for granted when it comes to support for peace in Yemen. We have to work toward solutions. We have to be very, very aggressive about maintaining what progress we make.”

One of this year’s notable success stories of the multilateral system also has to do with Yemen. The threat of a massive oil spill in the Red Sea had been averted, after more than a million barrels of oil were transferred to a salvage ship from the Safer tanker, a decaying storage vessel that had been moored off the coast of Yemen for years and described as a “ticking time bomb.”




Technicians work on the deck of the replacement vessel as the transfer of oil from the decaying FSO Safer oil tanker began off Yemen on July 25, 2023. (Reuters/File)

“I think it is an incredible story because (of) an unlikely coalition of private sector, including oil companies, national governments, and a crowdfunding effort that tapped into individuals around the world. School kids in Bethesda, Maryland, sold lemonade because they got swept up by the environmental consequences of this oil spill had it happened,” Lenderking said.

“And it’s kind of a model for cooperation because we worked together to avert a problem before it became a crisis. That doesn’t happen very often on the world stage. Here in New York, nearly every conversation is about something that has happened already and needs to be dialed back. So, this was a terrific effort.”

On the downside, Yemen continues to be one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. In 2023, 21.6 million Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance as 80 percent of the population struggles to put food on the table and access basic services. The UN has appealed for funding, with only 30 percent of the target having been met so far.




Yemenis displaced by the conflict receive food aid and supplies to meet their basic needs at a camp in Hays district in the war-ravaged western province of Hodeida on August 31, 2022. (AFP)

“Yemen’s economy has been in ruins. The country’s economic capacity has to be revitalized,” Lenderking said. “I think there’s eagerness to do this. We are in regular contact with the international financial institutions ... IMF, World Bank. And then there’s the distrust that has to be worked at through the kind of personal engagement that we’re seeing between the parties that until recently were shooting at each other. They are talking now.

“Now, the common outcome and objective must be peace: a peace agreement, threading together these various positive strands and pushing them with international support under UN leadership. It ultimately falls to the UN to put a roadmap together, capitalize on all of this positive movement and drive it toward Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations.”

 


Car blast kills one in Syrian capital: state media

Updated 7 sec ago
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Car blast kills one in Syrian capital: state media

DAMASCUS: A car explosion killed one person in Damascus on Saturday, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported, without identifying the victim.
Security incidents, including blasts targeting military and civilian vehicles, occur intermittently in the capital of war-ravaged Syria.
Quoting a police official, SANA said “one person was killed when an explosive device exploded in their car in the Mazzeh district.” It did not provide any other details.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor with a network of sources on the ground, said three vehicles caught fire in the area.
The explosion comes against a backdrop of heightened regional tensions, including the war between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Last month, an explosive device went off in a car in Mazzeh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, without causing any casualties, SANA reported at the time.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, targeting Iran-backed forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement as well as Syrian army positions.

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed embarks on China state visit on May 30

Updated 52 min 22 sec ago
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UAE President Sheikh Mohamed embarks on China state visit on May 30

DUBAI: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan will have a state visit to China on May 30 following an invitation from his counterpart Xi Jinping.

Discussions between the two leaders would mainly be regarding bilateral relations between the two countries, and how to further strengthen their economic, developmental and cultural ties, state news agency WAM reported.

Sheikh Mohamed will also attend celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and China, and will participate in the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

The UAE leader will have a two-day state visit to South Korea, prior to his arrival in China, at the invitation of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The two leaders will discuss bilateral ties and explore opportunities for greater collaboration across various sectors including trade, investment, energy and technology.


Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

Updated 25 May 2024
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Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

  • Israel gives no indication it is preparing to change course in Rafah, insists that the court had got it wrong
  • Top UN court earlier ordered Israel to halt military operations in the southern city

RAFAH: Israel bombed the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, on Saturday, a day after the top UN court ordered it to halt military operations in the southern city as efforts get underway in Paris to seek a ceasefire in the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also demanded the immediate release of all hostages still held by Palestinian militants, hours after the Israeli military announced troops had recovered the bodies of three more of the captives from northern Gaza.
The Hague-based court, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ordered Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which it closed earlier this month at the start of its assault on the city.
Israel gave no indication it was preparing to change course in Rafah, insisting that the court had got it wrong.
“Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part,” National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, welcomed the ICJ ruling on Rafah but criticized its decision to exclude the rest of war-torn Gaza from the order.
Continued fighting
Hours after the ICJ ruling, Israel carried out strikes on the Gaza Strip early Saturday while clashes between the Israeli army and the armed wing of Hamas continued.
Palestinian witnesses and AFP teams reported Israeli strikes in Rafah and the central city of Deir Al-Balah.
“We hope that the court’s decision will put pressure on Israel to end this war of extermination, because there is nothing left here,” said Oum Mohammad Al-Ashqa, a Palestinian woman from Gaza City displaced to Deir Al-Balah by the war.
“But Israel is a state that considers itself above the law. Therefore, I do not believe that the shooting or the war will stop other than by force,” said Mohammed Saleh, also met by AFP in the central Gaza Strip city.
In its keenly awaited ruling, the ICJ said Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
It ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid and also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The Israeli military said the three hostages whose bodies were recovered in north Gaza on Friday — Israeli hostage Chanan Yablonka, Brazilian-Israeli Michel Nisenbaum and French-Mexican Orion Hernandez Radoux — were “murdered” during the October 7 attack and their bodies taken to Gaza.
Truce talks
The court order comes ahead of separate meetings on the Gaza conflict in Paris between the CIA chief and Israeli representatives on one side and French President Emmanuel Macron and the foreign ministers of four key Arab states on the other.
Ceasefire talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators ended shortly after Israel launched the Rafah operation, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office this week said the war cabinet had asked the Israeli delegation “to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages.”
CIA chief Bill Burns was expected to meet Israeli representatives in Paris in a bid to relaunch negotiations, a Western source close to the issue said.
Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron received the prime minister of Qatar and the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers on Friday “to press for a ceasefire,” according to Cairo.
The French presidency said they held talks on the Gaza war and ways to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The five countries discussed “the effective implementation of the two-state solution,” it added.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopening of the Rafah border crossing as soon as possible, Washington said.
Aid stuck
Israeli ground troops started moving into Rafah in early May, defying global opposition.
Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, further slowing sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza’s 2.4 million people.
But on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi agreed in a call with his US counterpart Joe Biden to allow UN aid through the other entry point into southern Gaza, the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel, the White House said.
The US military has also installed a temporary jetty on the Gaza coast to receive aid by sea that a UN spokesman said had delivered 97 trucks of aid after “a rocky start” a week ago.
The security and humanitarian situation in the territory remains alarming, with a risk of famine, hospitals out of service, and around 800,000 people, according to the United Nations, having fled Rafah in the last two weeks.
UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the situation had reached “a moment of clarity.”
“Aid workers and UN staff must be able to carry out their jobs in safety,” he posted on social media site X late Friday.
“At a time when the people of Gaza are staring down famine... it is more critical than ever to heed the calls made over the last seven months: Release the hostages. Agree a ceasefire. End this nightmare.”


Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

Updated 25 May 2024
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Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

KHAN YOUNIS: In a cowshed in Gaza’s Khan Younis, zookeeper Fathi Ahmed Gomaa has created a temporary home for dozens of animals, including lions and baboons, having fled with them from Israel’s offensive in Rafah.
“We’ve moved all the animals we had, except for three big lions that remain (in Rafah),” he said.
“I ran out of time and couldn’t move them.” Ahmed abandoned his zoo in Rafah when Israel ordered the evacuation of parts of the southern Gazan city.
Before the offensive, the city on the border with Egypt had been spared a ground invasion, and more than half of the Gaza Strip’s population was sheltering there.
Now, the Israeli offensive has sent more than 800,000 people fleeing from Rafah, according to the UN, with Gomaa and his family among them.
“I am appealing to the Israeli authorities: these animals have no connection to terrorism,” Gomaa said, saying he wanted their help in coordinating with aid agencies to rescue the lions left behind in Rafah.
He fears they won’t survive long on their own.
“Of course, within a week or 10 days, if we don’t get them out, they will die because they’ll be left with no food or water.”
Gomaa said he had already lost several of his animals to the war: “Three lion cubs, five monkeys, a newborn monkey, and nine squirrels.”
And while the squawking of parrots fills the air, many of Gomaa’s other birds are no longer with him.
“I released some of the dogs, some of the hawks and eagles, some of the pigeons, and some of the ornamental birds. I released many of them because we didn’t have cages to transport them.”
In the cowshed, Gomaa is making do with what he has, using improvised fencing to raise the heights of the pens so that their new inhabitants, spotted deer, can’t leap out.
Israeli troops began their assault on Rafah on May 7, defying widespread international concern for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians sheltering in the city.


EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

Updated 25 May 2024
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EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

BRUSSELS: Talks on deploying a EU mission at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza are at a preliminary stage and the deployment will not happen without an end to the war between Israel and Hamas, a senior EU official said on Friday.
EU foreign ministers will hold their monthly meeting in Brussels on Monday, and discuss how to improve humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.
Two diplomats said the US had suggested the EU revive its EU Border Assistance Mission or EUBAM Rafah, which has not been operational since 2007, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza.
The crossing is the main entry point for aid from Egypt and has been closed since Israeli forces took control of it from the Gazan side nearly three weeks ago.
Rafah city is now fire in an Israeli military assault, which judges at the top UN court said on Friday should immediately halt.
“Even if we now have people on the ground talking to the different parties and seeing how it could be done, we are in a very preliminary part of the story,” said the senior official.
The official said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could be mandated by the 27 members on Monday to come up with “some kind of operative conclusions that could allow the mission to deploy.”
He said a deployment could not happen “in the current circumstances, not in war circumstances.”
“We are talking about the future,” the official said.
Three EU diplomats said the discussion would be on the table, but there was nothing concrete to discuss. One said the proposal was a “long shot.”
The mission would need unanimous approval from EU member states. Also, EUBAM is a civilian mission, and given the potentially dangerous nature of the operation, personnel and equipment would need to be adapted.
Diplomats said that such a mission could go ahead only if Egypt and Israel were also in favor.
Two US officials said Washington was reviewing options to secure the opening of the Rafah crossing, but no definitive plans have been developed yet. Israel began its offensive in Gaza after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.