AFP-Jiji AL-KHARJ, Saudi Arabia (AFP-Jiji) — Washington is in talks with Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in a bid to end the country’s war, a top U.S. official said Thursday, the first such contact in more than four years.
The negotiations open a direct channel between U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and the Houthis amid the threat of a broader regional conflict with Iran.
It also comes as the rebels have stepped up missile and drone attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally that heads a military coalition against the Houthis.
“We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen,” Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters during a visit to the Al-Kharj air base near Riyadh.
“We are also having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually acceptable negotiated solution to the conflict.”
Schenker gave no further details on the talks, which mark a renewed effort to end a complex conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and sparked what the U.N. labels the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Senior Houthi official Hamid Assem told AFP he could neither confirm nor deny the rebels were in talks with Washington.
“That the United States says they are talking to us is a great victory for us and proves that we are right,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Washington was preparing for direct talks with the rebels and that its negotiating team would be led by Christopher Henzel, who became the Trump administration’s first ambassador to Yemen in April.
A State Department official said Thursday that “the U.S. ambassador to Yemen and other U.S. diplomats talk to all Yemenis to further U.S. objectives in the country.”
“We are focused on supporting a comprehensive political agreement that will end the conflict,” the official said.
The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa and much of the country’s north in 2014, sparking a Saudi-led military intervention the following March.
U.S. officials from the administration of former President Barack Obama held brief talks with Houthi leaders in June 2015 to convince them to attend U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
But the Geneva conference and further rounds of talks have failed to bring an end to the conflict, which has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told AFP that talks with the Houthis were not taking place “in a vacuum” but were “most likely after consultations with the Saudis.”
Riyadh had reportedly hoped for a quick win against the Houthis, but instead waded into a quagmire that has cost it billions of dollars and hurt its reputation, while devastating the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Riyadh-led coalition, assisted by Western powers including the United States, has struggled to oust a ragtag but highly motivated tribal militia that specializes in guerrilla tactics.