US condemns stepped-up attacks on Saudi Arabia following outreach to Houthis

Houthi assault on Abha airport comes as US envoy met Saudi minister in Riyadh
Explosives-laden drone that targeted Abha International airport, in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Feb. 10, 2021. (Photo: AFP Photo / HO / Saudi Ministry of Media)
Explosives-laden drone that targeted Abha International airport, in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Feb. 10, 2021. (Photo: AFP Photo / HO / Saudi Ministry of Media)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – For the second time this week, the US condemned attacks by the Houthis in Yemen against neighboring Saudi Arabia. The successive assaults come just days after a major effort by the Biden administration to reverse its predecessor’s hard line toward the Iran-backed Houthis.

The Houthi aggression, following so soon after Washington’s attempt at conciliation, raises questions about the chances for success for the US initiative.

On Wednesday, the Houthis launched four drones in an attack on Abha International airport, in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Abha lies some 400 miles south of Mecca, and the Houthi attack hit a civilian aircraft, setting it on fire.

Later that day, State Department spokesperson Ned Price denounced the assault. “We condemn the Houthi attack today,” he said during a press briefing, noting that it “coincides with US Special Envoy [Tim] Lenderking’s first trip to the region and his effort to bring a lasting peace to Yemen that will ease the suffering of the Yemeni people.”

Veteran diplomat Lenderking met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and the kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber, in Riyadh on Wednesday.

The envoy’s 28-year long State Department career has focused on the Middle East. Between 2008 and 2010, he served two tours in Iraq, first as Senior Democracy Advisor at the US embassy and the second as Policy Advisor to Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, Commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq. 

Subsequently, from 2013 to 2016, Lenderking was Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Saudi Arabia, as the State Department’s website explains.

In addition to coinciding with Lenderking’s trip to the Saudi capital, the Houthi attack also followed on two major steps by the Biden administration to reach out to the Houthis.

On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden paid an introductory visit to the State Department and laid out his vision for US foreign policy. That included Biden’s announcement of his administration’s first major initiative in the Middle East: ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Houthis, “including relevant arms sales,” to be followed by a US “push for a diplomatic resolution” of the conflict, which Biden described as “a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”

The next day, the US announced that it was reversing the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group – a designation made in the last days of that administration. 

Houthi attacks follow US outreach

The left-leaning online news magazine The Intercept described the new US position as “a hard-won victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.” But rather than reciprocate the conciliatory attitude that Biden articulated, the Houthis actually appear to have stepped up their attacks.

On Feb. 6, Saudi Arabia announced that it had intercepted and destroyed four armed drones coming from Yemen. 

The following day, Price issued a statement criticizing the Houthi aggression. “As the president is taking steps to end the war in Yemen,” he said, “and Saudi Arabia has endorsed a negotiated settlement, the United States is deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks.”

“We call on the Houthis to immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia,” Price continued, “and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people.”

Yet three days later, on Feb. 10, there was another Houthi attack, with at least one drone getting through Saudi defenses and hitting the airliner. So Price denounced the Houthis later that day at the press briefing, in which he was challenged by two journalists, both from the Middle East.

The first asked, “Are you planning to reconsider your decision to remove the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations after their attack today?”

The second was more blunt: “It’s really remarkable that the Houthi attacks have increased since the US decision to revoke their designation as a terrorist group,” he said. “How do you respond to the concerns of so many that the Houthis may feel emboldened by that decision in order to increase their attacks on Saudi Arabia?”

“The Houthi leadership,” Price responded, “will find themselves sorely mistaken, if they think that this administration is going to let them off the hook for the reprehensible conduct that they continue to undertake.”

“They will find themselves under significant pressure,” he continued, “and I suspect we may have more to say about that in the coming days.”

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly