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The U.S. And The War In Yemen


American diplomats may be making a belated attempt at a solution to the war in Yemen. The U.S. has been backing a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed rebels, but that Saudi-led coalition is now unraveling. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Senator Chris Murphy says he's been begging the State Department publicly and privately to get more involved in resolving the war in Yemen. Now he's seen some signs of this happening as U.S. diplomats meet with the Saudis to press for an end to the war and open channels to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

CHRIS MURPHY: I do see signs that we're becoming more actively involved in trying to figure out how the fighting could stop. I mean, listen. It's really hard when we're not talking to the Houthis or the Iranians. I mean, I don't really understand why we need to have a back channel to the Houthis. We're the United States of America. We're the most powerful country in the world. We don't need a back channel to anybody.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it won't detail the private conversations that diplomats are having but says the U.S. ambassador does talk to all Yemenis. One area where U.S. diplomats could help is in forming a transitional government for Yemen that would require complicated negotiations and buy in from the various warring sides, including the Houthis. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to portray the rebels as Iranian proxies and earlier this year, blasted senators for trying to curb U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led campaign.


MIKE POMPEO: If you truly care about Yemeni lives, you'd support the Saudi-led effort to prevent Yemen from turning into a puppet state of the corrupt, brutish Islamic Republic of Iran.

KELEMEN: The Houthis ousted a Saudi-backed government in Yemen nearly five years ago, and they've been getting closer to Iran ever since. Murphy, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says the U.S. should've been reaching out to them earlier.

MURPHY: The hands-off approach the Trump administration has taken up until now has never made sense to me because every day the war goes on, Iran gets stronger and stronger in the region.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials are also worried about the growth of al-Qaida and ISIS, made worse by the unraveling of the Saudi-led coalition. The United Arab Emirates pulled its forces out. And its proxies have now taken over much of southern Yemen. Murphy says U.S. diplomats need to get everyone to stop fighting and start talking.

MURPHY: This was my worry that, you know, without U.S. leadership, Yemen was going to continue to spiral out of control. And we're watching that happen.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been helping Saudi Arabia since the coalition bombing campaign began, providing weapons and logistical support. It started during the Obama administration when Rob Malley was a top Mideast adviser.

ROBERT MALLEY: It's one of those chapters that we have to look back at with - both with regret and introspection.

KELEMEN: The Saudis have been blamed for a high civilian death toll and a famine threatening millions. Malley says the Trump administration has more leverage with them than Obama did and should use it.

MALLEY: Yemen is the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world today, according to the U.N. That's saying a lot. The U.S. is obviously a party to that because of the support that it's providing to one side of the war. So that's an added reason why it should step up its diplomacy, speak to the Houthis and put pressure on the Saudis and its other allies to make sure that at the negotiating table, a reasonable bargain can be reached.

KELEMEN: It's a complex picture, but experts say it's not too late.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.