MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Tim Lenderking, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking will discuss the latest updates regarding the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, which expired on October 2nd without the parties reaching agreement to extend it. Special Envoy Lenderking will also discuss the importance of the parties exercising restraint during this sensitive period, and will take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to Special Envoy Lenderking for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you, Sam. Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. As Sam noted, we were concerned that the Houthis did not accept the UN’s proposal for a truce extension on October 2nd, but we do see that key elements of the truce continue to hold and that intensive UN-led negotiations and U.S. diplomacy continue unabated. When I talk about key elements of the truce holding, let me be clear what I mean. I mean that there is still a relatively low level of violence in the country. Fuel ships continue to offload into Hodeidah port. There will be more continuity in civilian – commercial flights from Sana’a airport. These particular elements of the truce have been extremely effective and have delivered tangible results to the Yemeni people over the last six months.
So, in our view, we think there’s a stark choice that lies ahead. On the one hand, there is a return to war, which will bring nothing but casualties and destruction on Yemen and will create further confusion as to where this conflict is headed. On the positive side, there is the opportunity to not only extend but expand the truce – that is, to bring more elements, positive elements of the truce, the likes of which would include flights, as I mentioned; there have been ongoing and very energetic discussions with numerous countries on additional flight destinations. We would anticipate that the kind of processing for fuel into Hodeidah would be streamlined even further. We expect to reach – be able to reach agreements on salary payments. This has been a core demand of both parties, right, to have the ability to pay Yemeni civil servants who have not been paid for many years: teachers, nurses, civil servants, to provide salaries for them.
These are the kinds of benefits that stand in the balance should the parties, particularly the Houthis, choose the path of peace. It’s a very clear choice on the part as viewed by the international community and as viewed by the United States.
We already have a public commitment from the Yemeni Government, the Saudi-led coalition, on the salary issue. It’s been made public. The stumbling block to renewing the truce on Sunday was, in fact, the Houthis imposing maximalist and impossible demands that the parties simply could not reach, certainly in the time that was available. So I think if we see more flexibility from the Houthi side going forward, then this opens the road, I think, to this much better peace option.
I think it’s very important to note, as I said, that U.S. and UN and international diplomacy continue unabated. There is absolutely no let-up in the engagement among the parties and across the lines of the conflict parties. All channels remain open and I think this is very important at this particularly sensitive time. And so we want to see that those channels remain open. They can create a path to durable peace. This is why I will return to the region in the very near future to continue this very energetic U.S. engagement to complement the efforts of the UN envoy.
Let me pause there and turn it back to Sam and open the floor for questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, Special Envoy Lenderking. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question is one of those pre-submitted questions and comes from Doaa Qaffas from Saudi Arabia’s Makkah newspaper. And Doaa asks, “Special Envoy Lenderking, what are the benefits that the Yemeni people will get in the future as a result of extending any truce? And what are the main obstacles that you see standing in the way of extending it?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much for the question, as I think it gets really to the heart of some of the issues at play here and what the stakes are in these stark choices that I – that I outlined. When we talk about the tangible benefits of the peace, let’s consider what we’ve already witnessed: dramatic reduction of 60 percent in civilian casualties; over 25,000 Yemeni citizens being able to fly on commercial flights in and out of Sana’a airport for the first time since 2016; there’s five times more fuel per month coming onto the market through Hodeidah port compared to last year, which makes it more widely available and actually lowers fuel prices.
I think these are very important benefits – humanitarian organizations have pointed to each of these factors as enabling their work, enabling access, allowing Yemenis to seek medical attention outside of Yemen for conditions that cannot be met in – with Yemen’s health system, allowing families to reunite with their own families abroad.
So these are very, very tangible things and benefits in the U.S. and I think the view of the Yemenis, and all this – all this can be expanded. I mean, there’s interest, as we have detected on both sides, to seeing these elements expanded. And so with a renewed and extended truce, we can see more of these tangible benefits coming online. So we think it’s very important that the Houthis listen to the calls from Yemeni men, women, and children, and prioritize a brighter future for their country.
The UN truce proposal includes a path to a political process as well, which is, I think, a key element here that we’re not – we all feel that while there have been tangible benefits to the truce, it is only the first step in a broader peace effort in Yemen. An extended truce opens the way to a durable ceasefire and to Yemeni-Yemeni talks that will decide the future of the country. These are very significant possibilities that are within reach if the parties step forward and embrace it.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live question queue and goes to Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya Al Hadath. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sam. Thank you. Thank you, Sam. Good morning, Tim. Tim, can you tell us, please, what are the conditions that the Houthis insisted that led to the collapse of an extension of the ceasefire? And are these conditions – was it acceptable or not acceptable to Washington? And second, there is talk that Iran has been playing a significant role to stop any extension of the ceasefire to use it as a pressure tactic because of the international community’s support for the demonstrators in Iran. Do you see any correlation between these two? Thank you.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you, Nadia. I think first and foremost, most importantly, the Houthis – when I talk about maximalist demands, insisting that salary payments be paid first to – first to Houthi military and security personnel when there was in fact already a positive conversation going on about paying salaries of Yemen civil servants, that this essentially hijacked the discussion and it created a threshold that was simply too hard for the other side to contemplate and was entirely unreasonable. And I think some Houthi leaders understand this.
So I think it’s very important for the Houthis to come back to the table and not, in fact, jeopardize through these high demands salaries for teachers, nurses, and civil servants. That is what’s on offer, and that’s something that – again, that the Houthis have demanded over the last several months. I’m confident, and I believe the UN envoy as well is confident that we can get there if the Houthis move away from the very high demands that they have levied really at the last minute, essentially backtracking from commitments that they had made earlier in the process.
Now, you ask whether that could be related to Iran. The answer is we don’t know. While on the one hand we were pleased that throughout the truce, the Iranians welcomed every truce renewal – on April 2nd, June 2nd, August 2nd – private messaging from them to various countries and parties whom we talked to since we don’t talk directly to the Iranians, as you know, has also suggested that the Iranians favor and embrace a political solution to the conflict, that there is no military solution. But we need to see Iranian action borne out on the ground that supports this kind of more positive approach, and frankly, we haven’t seen that. We’re eager to see that but we haven’t seen it. And until we do, we must view Iran’s involvement based on what we’ve seen so far, which has been over the course of the conflict quite negative.
MODERATOR: Our next question is another pre-submitted question and it comes from Manal Sharaf from Yemen’s Al-Mushahid.net. And Manal asks, “Given recent reporting about Houthi threats to attack facilities and other things in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE, and in areas controlled by the Yemeni Government, what are your expectations for those threats to be realized? And what means will the U.S. use to resort to pressure the Houthis to return to the peace process?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much for the question. We saw the Houthi rhetoric that threatened commercial shipping and oil companies. This is completely unacceptable. We made that clear in the statement we released on Monday from Washington. It remains in our national interest to help our Gulf partners defend themselves from any external aggression, and we would do so in the case of aggression coming from Yemen. The President and the Secretary have been clear that the United States will continue to support our Gulf partners, their legitimate defense needs, in order to meet existing and emerging threats – and that includes the cross-border attacks from Yemen and elsewhere against targets inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE. After all, there are more than 120,000 U.S. citizens living and working in the countries of the Gulf region. I know that the President and the Secretary have no higher objective than ensuring the security of Americans wherever they live abroad.
Finally, I would just say that in September, two potential sales completed congressional notification, allowing for the future transfer of additional Patriot missiles to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and terminal high-altitude air defense, or THAAD, missiles to the UAE. So these munitions have played a key role in defending both countries from cross-border UAS and missile attacks originating from Yemen.
Let me stress, though, the key point here. We and the international community are calling for restraint on all parties at this particularly sensitive time. When there is no truce officially on the books that has been agreed to and welcomed and adhered to by the parties, we must insist that there be maximum restraint exerted by all sides.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the live and goes to Monalisa Freiha from Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: And your line is open. Please go ahead.
MODERATOR: Hello. Thank you, Sam, and thank you for this opportunity. Since my questions I submitted in advance have been answered by Mr. Lenderking, I would like to ask again: What was the main obstacle for renewing the renewal of the truce, or the ceasefire?
MR LENDERKING: Thank you. Look, I think I answered that by really focusing on the resistance that the Houthis put up and the very high demands to the issue of salary payments. Again, it’s important to know that this was not a new topic of conversation among – within the UN truce proposal. This is something that the Houthis have wanted. This is something that they can attain by returning to the truce process and the UN proposal that is on the table. We encourage them very eagerly to do so. This is the way to attain those objectives. Going back through a military process or upping the military consequences on the other side is only going to bring further destruction to Yemen and to the Yemeni people. We cannot – the United States cannot and will not tolerate such a position. Let’s look forward. We can move through and attain all of these elements of an expanded truce when we get back into the conversation and engage vigorously on the UN proposal that is on the table.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Our next question is another pre-submitted question and it comes from Ibrahim Badawy from Qatar’s Al Raya newspaper. And Ibrahim asks, “Special Envoy Lenderking, how would you describe the current humanitarian situation in Yemen? What is urgently needed and how do you see the role of Qatar and others in the region in this regard?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you. I mean, we’re extremely concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Most of the metrics that humanitarians look at to use to assess humanitarian needs – the needs are great, and the funding, frankly, is not adequate. I’m extremely proud that the United States has contributed $5 billion over the course of the conflict, $1 billion to humanitarian coffers this very year. But in my conversations with the World Food Program and other NGOs, we know that their resources are limited and, indeed, they’ve had to remove some individuals – in fact, thousands of individuals – off the food rolls. We need to reverse this. And indeed, the – so part of the answer is through continued funding on an emergency basis to the UN humanitarian crisis.
It’s also through ending the war. That is the way by which we can fully and finally address the humanitarian needs of the Yemeni people. We’ve seen progress through the truce. Numerous NGOs have come forward and said that because of the truce, we are now able to access thousands more people. There is the possibility when there is a truce that rebuilding can begin. Roads can be opened, which is an expectation that the United States has for the truce going forward.
This is the best way that we can address Yemen’s humanitarian situation: the move toward peace through a return to the truce and the expansion of the terms as I’ve outlined.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live queue and goes to Heba El Koudsy from the Asharq AlAwsat newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Mr. Lenderking. I would like to ask if the U.S. is reconsidering redesignating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization as long as they are – they are not sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And if not, what other options does the U.S. have to push or pressure – to put pressure on the Houthis? Thank you.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much. I mean, many options are on the table. The option that we want to see, of course, is a return to the truce. That’s the way we’re going to see Yemen’s needs across the spectrum met, both through de-escalation, through the continued movement of fuel ships, through an expansion of commercial flights beyond the 25,000 individuals who’ve been able to benefit, the opening of roads which is – which we’ve identified as a key element that increases access and minimizes the humanitarian siege in Taiz in particular.
We have – we still have humanitarian concerns about an FTO, a foreign terrorist organization, designation. Those must be taken into consideration.
And when we talk about the humanitarian situation, we greatly appreciate the role that other countries have been playing. Qatar was mentioned earlier. They have been very generous in contributing toward Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, toward the funding needs. We’re also relying on the commitments that the Saudis and the Yemen Government have made to maintain the terms of the truce. So indeed, let’s look at what commitments are the Houthis willing to make. Pull down the maximalist demands. Get in – get back into the productive conversation that has been taking place for the last six months on reaching an expanded truce and driving toward the durable ceasefire, the Yemeni-Yemeni political process that we all want to see.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. I think we have time for just a few more questions, a couple more questions. Our next question is a pre-submitted question from Ahmed Al Bulushi from the Oman News Agency. And Ahmed asks, “Special Envoy Lenderking, have you liaised with the Omani side to establish contact with the conflicting parties in Yemen to encourage them to reach a new truce?” Over to you, sir.
MR LENDERKING: Yes, thank you, Mr. Bulushi, for that question. I am a regular, regular visitor to Muscat. As you probably know, I go to Oman on almost every trip I take to the region. And the dialogue and the consultation that we have with the Government of Oman is extremely valuable and it’s not just at my level. The Secretary of State spoke with the Oman foreign minister last Friday, Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi. We value his perspective, his insights. We see that the sultan of Oman is very engaged on this file, that he is engaged and committed to the peace process that we are talking about.
The Omanis, as you know, took a – flew to Sana’a at the extension of the last truce in August. Their personal engagement has been extremely useful, and we know that they have concerns also about stability in Yemen that could affect the stability of the Sultanate of Oman. And so we work very closely with the Omanis in trying to address these broader issues of stability, and we appreciate very much the support that they have given to the truce and beyond.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. I think we have time for one last question, and we’ll go to a question from our live queue, to Wael Badran from the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ittihad newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: And your line is open. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. Actually, my first question has been asked by my colleague Heba Koudsy. So my second question is: How do you evaluate the UAE position supporting (inaudible)? Thank you so much.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much. I mean, my – in the last point, I spoke about visiting Oman regularly. Of course I also travel very regularly to the United Arab Emirates – extremely valuable partnership that we have with them on Yemen, looking at the full range of issues that encompass the security of the seas around the southern peninsula and also internal stability inside Yemen. Emirati support for the Presidential Leadership Council is very important. They have pledged, as you know, economic support to the PLC. We look forward to seeing that disbursed on an urgent basis. The unity and integrity of the PLC is very important to all of the efforts that I’ve been talking about, and these were – these were points that the Secretary of State made to His Excellency Rashad al-Alimi when they met in New York two weeks ago.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. And now, Special Envoy Lenderking, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Sam and everybody, for joining this call and for this opportunity to talk about Yemen. I want to leave you with the unwavering conviction that the diplomatic efforts are fully, fully engaged. Channels are open across all lines. And what we have is a situation which we haven’t had for the last eight years of the war: an unprecedented international consensus that there is no military solution, that the way forward is through the UN truce proposal and the benefits that it will bring.
Again, the truce is only the first step. We need to use this process – the very constructive dialogues that have gone on – to bring the progress that we’ve seen to this point, to bring it to the next level, to push it into an opportunity for a durable ceasefire and Yemeni-Yemeni talks so that we can end foreign influence in Yemen, which I think is something that we all want to see and let Yemenis come together and determine the future of their country.
MODERATOR: That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.