Special Briefing by
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Tim Lenderking
December 21, 2017
MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. Boy, it feels so nice to walk out here with just a file folder and not a big briefing book. This is going to be our last briefing of the year, so I wanted to take the opportunity – I know, I know, really looking forward to that. And I brought with you a couple of fantastic guests as a part of our way to bring more information to you from our experts. Nobody knows these issues better than our colleagues here at the State Department.
Before we get to them, I just wanted to say thank you so much for a terrific 2017. I am truly honored to be working with you each and every day. Your professionalism, your dedication to the facts is really something that has been so impressive, and I just wanted to thank you all for the job that you do. We’re looking forward to seeing, I hope, many of you later tonight at the Secretary’s reception, his holiday reception for the press. And also some think tanks will be joining us for the first time this year.
And with that, I’d also like to say thanks to all of our colleagues across the world for working so hard in 2017. We’ve had so many acting people who’ve stepped up and done some very difficult jobs, and just wanted to thank them and their families for supporting them in the work.
So today, we’re here to bring you two senior State Department officials to brief you on two important foreign policy issues. First, I’d like to introduce you to our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs, Tim Lenderking. Many of you perhaps know Tim. He is here to speak about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. You may have seen a short while ago that the White House put out an announcement on Yemen and the changes, we believe, to the humanitarian situation there. In addition, USAID put out a statement as well.
Since 2015, the U.S. Government, through USAID and State, has provided more than $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Following Tim’s briefing and some questions and answers, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, will provide an update for you on the D-ISIS campaign and he will take your questions as well. And then we’ll hightail it out of here and see you guys later this evening.
Okay, DAS Lenderking. Do you want to take over?
MR LENDERKING: Sure.
MS NAUERT: Okay. And I’ll call on you all just to help facilitate.
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you very much, Heather. And good afternoon, everybody. Very glad to be here. Happy Holidays to all of you.
I really want to emphasize the importance that we’re placing on the Yemen conflict right now. I think you’ve seen, as Heather mentioned, the statement that was just released by the White House. This caps a very, very, very busy couple of weeks of statements and very aggressive diplomacy on the part of the President, the Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretary. A lot of very positive interaction between us and members of Congress who are keenly interested in this conflict as well.
As Heather stated, no one’s put more attention and more funding into the Yemen conflict than the United States. She mentioned the figure of 1.3 billion. It’s a very significant amount, but I think also we’re dealing with very significant problems inside Yemen. There’s both the cholera and the food insecurity situation. But we are very pleased that Saudi Arabia and members of the coalition announced two days ago the opening of Hodeidah port. That is for all types of assistance; that’s humanitarian assistance, it’s commercial assistance. They’re also – they have also agreed to – moving four U.S.-funded cranes which have been in storage in Dubai for some time, which will help offload ships that are now about to berth and move toward Hodeidah port. We think this is going to help alleviate some of the humanitarian concerns.
This brings, I’d say, to culmination, as I said, what I think is very aggressive diplomacy by the United States on this front. You saw the President’s message a week ago in which he called on the Saudi leadership and said we are working with the Saudis very closely to open up humanitarian corridors. This is – this has been very helpful to us. The Secretary of State has been very, very, very much engaged. We’ve been talking to NGOs as well. The deputy secretary chaired a meeting last Friday with key international and American NGOs to hear their concerns and to move their concerns to the forefront.
So this has been an evolving situation but something that we really put a lot of muscle into in the last few weeks. We’ve also worked with the Saudis and the Emiratis through a mechanism which we call the Quad. This brings the three of those countries with us, two of those countries with us and with the Brits together. We’ve had two meetings recently – one in London, one in Abu Dhabi – at the ministerial level in which the humanitarian component has featured very centrally in the discussions that we’ve had with these core countries.
And we want to keep that mechanism going as a way of helping with the political process. Not only are we working on the humanitarian side; we’re also moving toward a political process, we hope, as there is no military solution to this conflict. So the more bombs that are dropping, the more Houthi aggression, the more attacks against Riyadh and other population centers in Riyadh, which we cannot countenance, the more the conflict is going to drag on. So we’re pushing everybody to move into a political process as quickly as we can.
One very concerning element to all this and very consistent throughout the last couple of years of the conflict has been Iran’s support for the Houthis. We believe that there is room for the Houthis in a political settlement. We welcome that, but not when the Houthis continue to rocket and – rocket our – a key ally like Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, and also not – not when the Houthis are menacing the border of Saudi Arabia, which is something that goes on very consistently.
So with that, I would be very happy to take any comments or questions.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hi, Tim. This is Yemen-related, although it may not be exactly the topic you want to talk about. As you are well aware, the UN General Assembly just voted on this resolution condemning the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yemen actually introduced that and then voted for it. Given Ambassador Haley’s comments, how much of the assistance that you guys have provided to them is going to be cut now because of their decision not just to vote in favor but to actually introduce the resolution?
MR LENDERKING: Well, I’d go with what Nikki Haley said, and the President indeed, is that we’re paying very close attention to who votes where on this. No decisions have been made. I think this is – it’s a breaking development. But we are looking very closely at who voted where, and I think there’ll be very close scrutiny and decisions made on that basis.
QUESTION: So you’re saying —
MR LENDERKING: I can’t speak specifically to Yemen, though, on that one.
QUESTION: Okay. But you’re saying – so humanitarian assistance, including for a country that’s in absolute catastrophic crisis right now, is possibly on the table here because of this vote in the UN today?
MR LENDERKING: Well, I don’t know that for sure. I just know what Nikki Haley has said to address that situation, what the White House has said, that we take the vote very seriously. We have to measure that against the fact that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. There are many reasons why there – why that has come to be so. It’s in the United States interests to see this conflict in Yemen brought to a close – al-Qaida benefits, Daesh benefits, Iran benefits. Not good for the United States. So you’ve got to put all these things together in terms of how we move forward.
QUESTION: So it was an empty threat?
MR LENDERKING: I wouldn’t call it an empty threat at all. I think it’s a very fulsome threat. And I think it’s – there’s nothing I can do to expand on what Nikki Haley and the White House said.
QUESTION: All right, and last one very briefly. You mentioned talking diplomacy with the Saudis and the Emiratis. Well, both the Saudis and the Emiratis voted in favor of this resolution as well. How do you see it? Is that going to affect your diplomacy with them? Or, again, was the bluster – or was the talk just bluster up in New York?
MR LENDERKING: Well, first of all, I don’t think the talk was just bluster. I can’t, again, speak to the specifics of how we intend to move on these votes. This all just happened. We have very strong partnerships going on with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It’s not just the Yemen conflict; it’s across the board. These are key allies for us in the Middle East. You’re going to hear from Brett McGurk in a few minutes talking about the counter-ISIL crisis conflict. Both of these countries are key partners in that conflict.
So I think you have to look at the broad range of things that we do with these countries. They are very important partners in the fight against terrorism.
MS NAUERT: All right. Nick from Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Hi, Tim.
MR LENDERKING: Hi.
QUESTION: Can you talk about – the Saudis say this is a 30-day opening of Hodeidah. Are you – do you have any indication that they would be willing to extend it beyond 30 days? And then also, when you talk about moving toward a political process, do you have any sense right now of what that process might look like?
MR LENDERKING: On the 30 days, I think we’ll have a conversation with the Saudis about the duration of that. I don’t want to read into their thinking on this because I think they are going to reveal more about their humanitarian plans in coming days, so I don’t want to prejudge any of that. It’s taken a lot to get us to this point, as I said in my opening remarks – a great deal of U.S. muscle I think being applied here.
And so I think we’re all going to evaluate as this process goes on. I mean, the first thing we want to see is ships actually moving into Hodeidah port, offloading, providing fuel, water, supplies for the Yemeni people, filling the hospitals with fuel so that medical supplies can be dispensed – the kinds of things that the NGOs talked to us about a week ago and who have made – and issues that they’ve made clear.
So I think we’ll all be evaluating. The U.S. – four U.S. cranes will be on their way very shortly to Hodeidah. We want to see them installed. We want to see them playing a central role here in offloading ships. I think all that we look at and we evaluate over time. I think the Saudis want to work with us on this and getting to the – working with them to get to this point has been a very significant development.
As to the peace process or political process, there’s a great deal of turmoil in Yemen right now. The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh – he was not a strong partner of us, as you know, in the last couple of – couple of years and was in a sort of an unholy alliance with the Houthis, which was very problematic for us and the Saudis and our coalition partners. He’s moved from the scene.
I think what we want to call for in Yemen is unity among the various parties. This is not a time for further disintegration, further turmoil inside Yemen. That is only going to complicate the kinds of priorities that I’ve been talking about in terms of getting a political process going and working on the humanitarian side.
The reprisals that we’ve seen against the GPC, we have condemned those. We’ve called on the Houthis to cease carrying out reprisals against members of Saleh’s party, against his family. We’re looking to push everybody to the extent we can – and I realize that there’s own rhythm inside Yemen for these things. It’s not necessarily something for outsiders to dictate. There’s a rhythm here for Yemeni parties to come together, and this is – this is the time to do it.
MS NAUERT: Next question, please. Dave from AFP.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. Obviously, the United States has given strong support to Saudi Arabia and to the Emirates in their battle against Iranian influence and in the – against the aggression of the Houthis. Is there a risk though that they’ve misinterpreted this as a green light for destabilizing activity? The blockade of Yemen obviously has created a humanitarian problem there that you then had to call them out in recent weeks, as you’ve noted. Do you – does the United States bear some responsibility for the aggression of recent Saudi actions in Yemen, and did they misinterpret your support?
MR LENDERKING: Well, we’ve been very, very – I think the benefit of having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is that we’re very clear and very frank in our private conversations. You’ve seen a lot of the political – sorry, the public messaging on this, but privately we’ve been very, very direct. We’ve had numerous, numerous venues and numerous opportunities to talk to the Saudi leadership, whether it’s the President with King Salman yesterday or the Secretary with his counterparts. As I’ve said, there’s very active dialogue going on.
I think what we have in Yemen is a situation that, given turmoil and chaos, the Iranians have been able to exploit this situation to their own benefit. What that has meant is strong developments inside the country that are very fundamentally against U.S. interests.
So I wouldn’t say the Saudis have misinterpreted anything. I think we’ve been – and I think if you look at the openings on the humanitarian front, that is a situation of message received, and I think we can – we should be glad about that, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
And by the way, when the Saudis closed the border after the November 4th missile attack, we were not in favor of that. We did not think that that was an appropriate response. We’ve encouraged the Saudis – as difficult as it may seem, you’ve got to separate the humanitarian piece from the military piece. We understand that your country is being aggressed and menaced on a regular basis by the Houthis, that the response to that cannot be cutting – shutting off of humanitarian outlets and access that are essential for the Yemeni people. So that’s been a core part of our message as well.
MS NAUERT: Arshad from Reuters.
QUESTION: One question about the White House statement this afternoon. After condemning in the strongest terms the latest missile attack, the next sentence says the Iranians have also enabled, then you refer back to the attack on the airport. Is it the U.S. Government’s judgment that the Iranians enabled the most recent missile attack? Do you have any granular information on what kind of a missile, whether it was an Iranian-provided missile or what exactly the Iranians did to enable this?
MR LENDERKING: I’m not going to speak to the real specifics of that because I think we’re still working through. This is a very recent attack; we’re working through some of the information as we’re collecting it, which the Saudis are helping us to do. I encourage you all to go and visit the display that Nikki Haley highlighted last week, the display of Iranian missile parts. These are parts from actual missile impacts inside the kingdom or the Arab Emirates. They’ve been collected. They are on display there.
I think it’s one very important data piece in understanding what the Saudis and the coalition face, which is this Iranian assistance to the Houthis. I think the Houthis have been able to do in a very short amount of time what other organizations like Hizballah took a long time to develop.
And so what we’ve seen is this kind of Iranian support for Houthi ballistic missile capability, which is extremely worrisome when a missile lands four kilometers from Riyadh International Airport, King Khalid International Airport. Our diplomats use that airport; the UN uses that airport; foreign embassies use that airport; the Saudi leadership uses that airport. It’s an unconscionable display of aggression, I think, when we are faced with that kind of a threat.
So it’s not going to be easy to blunt that, but we’re trying to enable the Saudis to be able to blunt that kind of threat on their own as we work on the margins with resolving some of the issues in the Yemen conflict that give Iran the ability and the – and a seat at the table, if you will, that we wish to deny them.
QUESTION: But did the Iranians enable the December the 19th missile attack? Do you believe that they did?
MR LENDERKING: Oh, yes. Yes, I certainly do. And I think if you go out and visit the display, you will see the irrefutable evidence of Iranian parts. There is a very key relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis. I don’t want to overstate it. I don’t want to suggest that the Houthis operate entirely at the behest of the Iranians. But it’s an important relationship and one that the Iranians are able to exploit.
MS NAUERT: Next question. Arshad, if I may, just a point of clarification – you said this most recent one on December the 19th?
QUESTION: Yeah, the December the 19th one. That’s what I was asking about.
MR LENDERKING: Oh.
MS NAUERT: Okay. I just want to make sure you got it.
MR LENDERKING: I’m sorry, I meant the previous.
QUESTION: Okay. So you don’t have a definitive view —
MR LENDERKING: No.
QUESTION: — on the 19th?
MR LENDERKING: I don’t have a definitive answer on the most recent one.
QUESTION: Got it. Okay, thank you.
MR LENDERKING: I was talking about the one before that. Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.
MR LENDERKING: No, thank you.
MS NAUERT: Conor from ABC.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. You obviously welcomed the announcement this week about the ending of the blockade, but given the Saudis’ escalation in their bombing campaign since that November missile attack, the fact that they implemented this blockade in the first place over the past period of weeks, are they responsible at all for the humanitarian crisis on the ground in Yemen?
MR LENDERKING: Well, I think you can point to a lot of blame to go around. There’s no question that when infrastructure has gotten damaged in the air campaign, that’s been a contributing factor. Not everything that explodes inside Yemen is attributable to the coalition. Sometimes it’s assumed that that is the case. The Houthis attack civilians, the Houthis have destroyed civilian infrastructure, so that’s I think just part of the reality of what we’re dealing with.
Yemen before the conflict was not a happy place in the sense that it was not a developed country. There was already economic decline that was beginning to set in. But this – the last couple of years of conflict has certainly exacerbated those trends. We want to move very quickly to reverse those, so we’re supporting the Yemen central bank as an institution; again, trying to work back toward a political solution that would – a political process that would get – that would lead to a cessation of hostilities. We continue to back the efforts of the UN special envoy as well as he maintains that role and continues his engagement with the parties.
MS NAUERT: Just a final —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) at least in part (inaudible)?
MS NAUERT: — final question. We’ve got to get him down. Tim has to go up to the Hill for a briefing. Conor, you good with that?
QUESTION: Just in part – so you would say in part, at least, that they’re responsible for some of the deaths, some of the famine?
MR LENDERKING: I think there’s blame or responsibility, I should say, across the board, I think.
MS NAUERT: Kylie? And then we’ve got to go. The last.
QUESTION: Last question, just piggybacking off of the Haley conversation earlier. You called it a fulsome threat from Haley and the White House, so can you kind of expand on the conversations that will be had with the State Department and the UN and the White House in regard to following up on such threat, if conversations had been had already or if they’re planned for the future?
MR LENDERKING: I really cannot, because I don’t – I just don’t know the details. And again, this is something that just happened. I would go with what’s – what we’ve already said on the record.
MS NAUERT: I think it’s premature to get into any of that right now. DAS Lenderking, thank you so much.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much. Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Appreciate it. Happy holidays to you.
MR LENDERKING: Yeah, you bet. Thank you.
[Break in Briefing.]
MS NAUERT: I just want to mention one more thing, back to the initial line of questioning that you had about the UN vote that just took place, and I just wanted to reiterate what the President had said yesterday, and that that was the UN vote is really not the only factor that the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations and countries who have chosen to vote one way or the other. So I just want to make that clear.
In addition, I just received a note from our folks over at the White House and the NSC and they tell me that the President’s foreign policy team has been empowered to explore various options going forward with other nations. However, no decisions have been made.
QUESTION: Well, since you opened this up to the line of questioning or responding to —
MS NAUERT: No, I just wanted to be —
QUESTION: No, no, I understand. So —
MS NAUERT: — to follow up on that because we had some new information to provide you —
QUESTION: Well – right, I – yes.
MS NAUERT: — since DAS Lenderking was here.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you, and thanks for conveying that, but I – now I – but now that raises another question, and that is Ambassador Haley in her comments this morning said, this vote, we will remember this vote. You have singled us out. The people who single us out – well, the vote last month on the Cuba resolution was far more one-sided. You were only two; it was 191 to 2. Why do you have such a – why is this vote, which was 128 to – at least you had more than one other country with you, and you had a significant number of abstentions – why is this more important than a vote in which you’re literally all alone but one?
MS NAUERT: Matt, I think I would say this would be something that would be handled out of USUN and not handled out of this building. So if you have any subsequent questions about that, I can certainly refer you to Nikki Haley’s staff on that.
QUESTION: Please do. Can you relay the question? I mean, I want to know why is this vote more important than the other vote, which was worse, which was more lopsided and not in your favor? Why is your memory so long on that and everyone seems to have forgotten about 191?
MS NAUERT: I would be happy to take your question and convey it to her staff on that. Okay? Yeah?
QUESTION: You also, just on – and maybe you’ll give the same answer – but on the Haley remarks, she didn’t only say individual countries, but the U.S. would remember this when it determines its contributions to the UN. So is that a process that’s already starting, where you are looking at levels?
MS NAUERT: Not that I am aware of. Not that I’m aware of. I’m not going to speak on behalf of Ambassador Haley or her staff, but I’m not aware of any of that taking place right now.
QUESTION: Can I ask, then, that you speak on behalf of the administration? And does Ambassador Haley speak on behalf of the administration? I don’t understand why there’s two parallel streams of – of this question.
MS NAUERT: Well, there are some things that, when it comes to votes that take place at the United Nations, we’re not involved in that process down here. So that is why I say —
QUESTION: Well, I would – I would hope that you are. I mean, you’re supposed to be —
MS NAUERT: Well, that is why I would say I’d refer you to her office and they can help you with that.
QUESTION: Yeah. But her office is supposed to be informed by this building. Is she running her own show up there?
MS NAUERT: No. I’m just – I’m just not going to – I’m just not going to comment on some of those things. Okay?
Okay. Great to see you all. I –
QUESTION: Can you take a question for an answer next year?
MS NAUERT: For next year? (Laughter.) You want me to hold it for a week and a half?
QUESTION: I’ll give you the question now.
MS NAUERT: Certainly.
QUESTION: The question is that I have received this detailed reports about the people in Pakistan. They are changing their religion to Christianity to get here and get – apply for the asylum. So are you aware of it? Are you doing something about it? And —
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, but I’d be happy to take your question and see if we can get an answer for you. Okay? All right. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you this afternoon. Right? Okay. Later this afternoon. In a few hours. Looking forward to that.