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U.S. Envoy for Yemen says we are at a moment for hope in near decade-long conflict

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two out of every three people. That is the scale of need for humanitarian assistance in Yemen. That's according to the U.N., which is mounting an emergency response to try to help millions of people there who are starving. War in Yemen has dragged on for nearly a decade since Houthi rebels overthrew the Saudi-backed government back in 2014. Iran then backed the rebels, and a civil war became a proxy war. But we may be at a moment for hope. I want to bring in the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, who's been holding meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this week to try to build momentum for peace in Yemen. We have caught him at the U.N. today. Special envoy Lenderking, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TIM LENDERKING: Thanks very much - delighted to be here.

KELLY: Start with the stakes. I know you were in Yemen last month. When I give that figure - that the U.N. says two out of three people in that country need help - can you just paint a picture of what that actually looks like?

LENDERKING: Yes. I think we're extremely concerned and very focused on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. It is routinely described as the world's worst humanitarian situation. And I think if you look at it for most of the metrics - food insecurity, damaged infrastructure, internal displacement - you really have very strong indicators that the war has taken a huge toll on the civilian population. But as you said in the intro, I do think this is a hopeful moment, right? There's been 18 months now of de-escalation - no cross-border attacks. There's been an ability of Yemenis to move around the country in a way that they hadn't been able to.

KELLY: Well, and I saw...

LENDERKING: Commercial airport...

KELLY: Yeah, commercial flights taking off from the airport in Sanaa, the capital. That's - it's been years since that's happened.

LENDERKING: That's right - first commercial flight since 2016, and there are about six a week. This is a moment of hope, but I think here on the American side, we feel very strongly that much more needs to be done to actually get to a durable ceasefire and a negotiation for peace.

KELLY: Yeah. OK, well, let's get into the talks and negotiations. I know that peace talks are happening in Saudi Arabia right now. Are they headed in the right direction? And what leverage does the U.S. have to try to push towards something more lasting, a durable peace?

LENDERKING: We do think they're headed in the right direction. And the fact that a Houthi delegation from Sanaa traveled to Saudi Arabia in itself is a significant development. This is the third round of talks that has taken place. The Saudis have traveled to Yemen for talks, and now the Houthis are traveling to Riyadh. And it's quite significant they were received by the minister of defense. There have been quiet talks over the years, but this is public, and the stakes are incredibly high at this particular time.

KELLY: Yeah. It's interesting listening to you because you do sound hopeful, and it's just so rare to be able to say that word - hopeful - and Yemen in the same sentence. I do want to press, though - the underlying factors, you know, the reasons this country has been at war for nearly a decade - are they resolved? Have they gone away?

LENDERKING: We can't say so, no. And you're right to point that out. I mean, there are economic factors and competition for resources and governance issues that Yemenis are going to have to confront. And that's exactly why we're using this hopeful moment, I think, to drive to a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue - is to get the Yemenis together - those conflict parties who have been fighting each other, those who support the government, those who support the Houthis - to get them negotiating together to solve the problems that confront them. And I think the fact that Secretary Blinken had no less than three meetings on Yemen while he was here this week - that kind of engagement from the U.S. leadership, I think, is really helping drive us toward, with help from the region - toward these talks that we all want to see.

KELLY: Before I let you go, I wonder if you would speak directly to Americans listening, many of whom may never have been to Yemen or will never go to Yemen. Obviously, the plight of millions of Yemeni people starving should concern all of us as human beings. But as Americans, lay out what the national security interest is for us in resolving this conflict.

LENDERKING: I think there is a national security stake. I mean, one element, of course, that has plagued Yemen in the past has been the existence of al-Qaida. They are still there. There was an attack on the USS Cole, which many of your listeners will remember.

KELLY: Back before 9/11. Sure.

LENDERKING: Yeah. And, you know, Yemen occupies a strategic location at the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and the opening there of the Red Sea. Until just a few weeks ago, there was a major environmental threat in the form of the Safer oil tanker, which had 1.1 million barrels of oil as a decaying ship. Through a U.N.-led, strongly U.S.-supported effort, that oil was offloaded safely. It was a major technical operation. And it's just another area where I think the international community has moved together with the conflict parties in Yemen to remove a threat and preserve, you know, shipping and livelihoods in this vital international waterway.

KELLY: That is U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking on the line from New York. Thank you.

LENDERKING: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.