The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”

View Source

In a Syrian Rebel Bastion, Millions Are Trapped in Murky, Violent Limbo

IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.

Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.

“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.

On a rare visit to Idlib Province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaeda.

bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.

Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.

About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.

SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.

The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Ms. Kisar said.

a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.

In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.

The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”

View Source

U.S. Looks to Build on Secret Portions of Taliban Deal to Reduce Violence

DOHA, Qatar — U.S. diplomats are trying to build on parts of the peace deal made with the Taliban last year, specifically the classified portions that outlined what military actions — on both sides — were supposed to be prohibited under the signed agreement, according to American, Afghan and Taliban officials.

The negotiations, which have been quietly underway for months, have morphed into the Biden administration’s last-ditch diplomatic effort to achieve a reduction in violence, which could enable the United States to still exit the country should broader peace talks fail to yield progress in the coming weeks.

If these discussions, and the separate talks between the Afghan government and Taliban falter, the United States will likely find itself with thousands of troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1. That’s the deadline by which all American military forces are meant to withdraw from the country under the 2020 agreement with the Taliban and would come at a time when the insurgent group likely will have begun its spring offensive against the beleaguered Afghan security forces.

Both of these conditions would almost certainly set back any progress made in the past months toward a political settlement, despite both the Trump and the Biden administrations’ fervent attempts to end the United States’ longest-running war.

two annexes of the 2020 deal, which were deemed classified by the Trump administration, is intended to stave off an insurgent victory on the battlefield during the peace talks by limiting Taliban military operations against Afghan forces, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with the negotiations. In return, the United States would push for the release of all Taliban prisoners still imprisoned by the Afghan government and the lifting of United Nations sanctions against the Taliban — two goals outlined in the original deal.

These new negotiations, which exclude representatives from the Afghan government, are being carried out amid a contentious logjam between the Taliban and the Afghans, despite pressure from international and regional actors on both sides to commit to some form of a path forward.

first reported by Tolo News, with requests that were not fully accepted by the U.S. negotiators and included severe restrictions on U.S. air power.

Many of the delays in securing a new deal to reduce violence stem from the original February 2020 agreement.

That deal loosely called for the Taliban to stop suicide attacks and large-scale offensives in exchange for the Americans forces scaling back drone strikes and raids, among other types of military assaults. But both sides interpreted those terms differently, officials said, and both have accused one another of violating the deal. The Taliban is also supposed to cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, but the U.S. intelligence community has seen little movement toward that goal.

Under the current arrangement, U.S. forces can defend their Afghan allies if they are being attacked, but the Taliban said U.S. airstrikes have been carried out against their fighters who were not attacking Afghan forces.

Digital spreadsheets maintained by the Taliban and viewed by The Times detail hundreds of purported U.S. violations. They record in detail the group’s wounded and killed, along with civilian casualties and property damage. However, the Taliban often do not distinguish between offensive operations carried out by Afghan security forces from those by U.S. forces, and several of the events The Times was able to independently verify from June 2020 did not involve American troops.

The new terms for a reduction in violence have been a serious point of contention during the past several months, during meetings frequently held at the Sharq Village and Spa, a luxurious resort in Doha, Qatar.

Meetings between American officials and the Taliban in Doha — including with high-level officials like then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in December — attempted to scale back Taliban attacks and stop the bloody assassination campaign wreaking havoc across the country, but made little headway.

With time running out, the Biden administration is hoping for more success, though these discussions continue to hit roadblocks.

Negotiations between the Afghans and the Taliban, which began in September, have practically come to a halt as the insurgent group has remained reluctant to discuss any future government or power-sharing deal while the United States remains noncommittal about whether it will withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1.

The Biden administration’s recent push for talks in Turkey could be promising, officials and experts said, but the Taliban have yet to agree to attend.

The insurgent group thinks Mr. Biden’s negotiators are manipulating the proposed agreement to reduce violence by asking for “extreme” measures, such as halting the use of roadside bombs and pausing attacks on checkpoints, according to people close to the negotiations.

Taliban negotiators say they believe the American requests equate to a cease-fire, while U.S. military officials say that if certain parameters are not clearly outlined, then the Taliban will shift their tactics to exploit any loopholes they can find — like they have done in the past.

Some of the more striking episodes happened in the past week when C.I.A.-backed militia forces were accused of killing more than a dozen civilians in a Taliban-controlled village in Khost Province in southeastern Afghanistan.

In retaliation, the Taliban authorized their fighters to attack the American military and C.I.A. base there and publicly took responsibility for the rocket attack that followed: a first for the insurgent group since it has mostly stopped, or refused to acknowledge, attacks against U.S. bases and troops, per the terms of the 2020 deal.

Some Taliban officials believe the C.I.A.-backed forces should be disbanded and their operations stopped if the insurgent group agrees to any further reduction in violence, according to people close to the negotiations, but it is unclear if the insurgent group has raised those concerns directly. Regardless, any such request is likely to fall on deaf ears as the U.S. military and intelligence community views these forces as some of the Afghans’ most effective, despite the litany of human rights abuses leveled against them.

The Khost incident highlights the difficulty of reaching an understanding when it comes to decreasing the intensity of the war, and the need for an international third-party monitoring body, such as the United Nations, in any future cease-fires or agreements to reduce violence, experts said.

It is unlikely the United States and Taliban will reach a new deal before May 1, analysts say, unless U.S. officials are willing to make serious concessions to prevent a violent offensive this spring, one that seems to already have started given the series of large attacks and assassinations by the Taliban in recent days.

Some experts have criticized the United States’ narrow focus on a short-term reduction of violence as a distraction from the larger effort of reaching a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“I am hard pressed to see what payoff there’s been for the amount of effort that has been put into trying to get limited violence reduction front-loaded in the peace process,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former top State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomacy under the previous two administrations. “It might be helpful for political optics in covering for an American withdrawal. But what’s going to make this stick afterward if there isn’t a real settlement? Nothing.”

Farooq Jan Mangal contributed reporting from Khost Province.

View Source

A Wedding, an Airstrike, and Outrage at the French Military

DAKAR, Senegal — They had gathered for a wedding in a village in central Mali.

The ceremony took place the day before, but about 100 men and teenagers were still celebrating the next afternoon. They prayed together, then dispersed into different groups under some trees.

An hour later, 22 members of the wedding party were dead, killed by French warplanes. Nineteen of them were civilians, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations.

The Jan. 3 airstrike set off outrage in the West African country, and has intensified calls for France, which has more than 5,000 troops stationed in the region, to leave.

Soon after the airstrike on the village of Bounti reports began to emerge that a wedding had been hit. France immediately dismissed any suggestion that its planes had attacked a wedding party, or that there had been any collateral damage.

has dragged on for years with no end in sight. Just last week, French troops were accused of killing more civilians, this time in northern Mali. France said they were terrorists; a local mayor said they were teenagers hunting birds.

The report called for France and Mali to carry out their own investigations into what happened at the wedding and pay compensation to the victims.

Constant Méhuet contributed reporting from Paris.

View Source

The Taliban Think They Have Already Won, Peace Deal or Not

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s swagger is unmistakable. From the recent bellicose speech of their deputy leader, boasting of “conquests,” to sneering references to the “foreign masters” of the “illegitimate” Kabul government, to the Taliban’s own website tally of “puppets” killed — Afghan soldiers — they are promoting a bold message:

We have already won the war.

And that belief, grounded in military and political reality, is shaping Afghanistan’s volatile present. On the eve of talks in Turkey next month over the country’s future, it is the elephant in the room: the half-acknowledged truth that the Taliban have the upper hand and are thus showing little outward interest in compromise, or of going along with the dominant American idea, power-sharing.

While the Taliban’s current rhetoric is also propaganda, the grim sense of Taliban supremacy is dictating the response of a desperate Afghan government and influencing Afghanistan’s anxious foreign interlocutors. It contributes to the abandonment of dozens of checkpoints and falling morale among the Afghan security forces, already hammered by a “not sustainable” casualty rate of perhaps 3,000 a month, a senior Western diplomat in Kabul said.

The group doesn’t hide its pride at having compelled its principal adversary for 20 years, the United States to negotiate with the Taliban and, last year, to sign an agreement to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking foreign forces and to sever ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy — would merely be used by the Taliban as a “Trojan horse” for the seizure of power.

recent paper — though, he notes, this may be driven more by political imperative than a softening of ideology.

Elsewhere, the Taliban’s increasingly confident messaging has penetrated deep into its rank-and-file, in large part because events have borne it out.

People said that it is not possible to fire on U.S. forces,” said Muslim Mohabat, a former Taliban fighter from Watapor District in Kunar Province. “They would say the barrel of the rifle would bend if you open fire on them, but we attacked them, and nothing happened.”

“Then we kept attacking them and forced them to leave the valley,” said Mr. Mohabat, who fought in some of the most violent battles of the war with the United States.

In the insurgents’ view, their advances will inexorably lead to the end of the Kabul government.

“On the battlefield there is a sense that, ‘We’re stronger than ever,’’’ said Ashley Jackson, a Taliban expert at the Overseas Development Institute. “Power-sharing and democracy, these are anathema to their political culture.”

Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

View Source

Sarah Onyango Obama, Ex-President’s Stepgrandmother, Dies at 99

Indeed, a year after the president’s inauguration she created her own foundation — the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation — to raise funds for an ambitious project to build an educational campus in her home village and to sponsor bursaries for young Kenyans, particularly girls, who would otherwise be denied schooling.

“I help the orphans and widows, especially the young girls who have been orphaned by their parents dying of H.I.V.,” she told NPR through a translator in 2014, when she won an Education Pioneer award at the United Nations. “I am their sole parent right now, so I help pay school fees and also get them the things they need, like sanitary towels, books, necessities like a pencil, school uniforms. That’s what I do.”

But there were risks in her ties to the American former president. After the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs in 2011, the Kenyan police ordered increased security in her village for fear of reprisals from a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. Even after Mr. Obama left office in 2017, the heightened precautions were maintained.

Mr. Obama’s own security arrangements also prevented him from visiting the ancestral village.

When Mr. Obama paid an official visit to Kenya in 2015, the first sitting American president to do so, his African relatives had to meet him in the capital, Nairobi. About three dozen members of his extended family, including his stepgrandmother, joined him at his hotel for dinner around long banquet tables.

During that trip, he also spoke at an indoor arena, where he was introduced by his half sister Auma Obama, who had also met him during his first visit to Kenya three decades earlier. She told the audience that a Kenyan had said to Mr. Obama, “don’t get lost,” but that there was no way he would.

“I’ll tell you that because he was with me. He fit right in,” she said.

“He’s not just our familia,” she added. “He gets us. He gets us.”

Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting.

View Source

Officials Try to Sway Biden Using Intelligence on Potential for Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — As President Biden signaled this week that he would let a May 1 deadline pass without withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, some officials are using an intelligence assessment to argue for prolonging the military mission there.

American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for Al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.

The classified assessment, first prepared last year for the Trump administration but not previously disclosed, is the latest in a series of grim predictions of Afghanistan’s future that intelligence analysts have delivered throughout the two-decade-long war.

But the intelligence has landed in a changed political environment. While President Donald J. Trump pushed for a withdrawal of all forces even before the terms of the peace deal required it, Mr. Biden has been more cautious, saying Thursday that he does not view May 1 as a deadline he must meet, although he also said he “could not picture” troops being in the country next year.

has been said to have privately described as haunting the possibility of allowing the country to descend into collapse.

Some senior Biden administration officials have expressed skepticism of any intelligence prediction of a resurgence of a weakened Al Qaeda or of the Islamic State. Taliban commanders remain opposed to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda, which has little current presence in the country, could regroup instead in any number of other lawless regions around the world.

Also left unanswered by the intelligence warning is the question of whether Afghanistan could really prosper if American troops remain indefinitely. Their presence would most likely prevent a collapse of the nation’s own security forces and allow the government in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to retain control of its major cities, but the Taliban are still likely to gradually expand their power in other parts of the country, including curbing the rights of women.

A Taliban spokesman said on Friday that the group was committed to last year’s peace agreement “and wants the American side to also remain firmly committed.” If troops are not withdrawn by May 1, the spokesman promised, the Taliban would “continue its jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces.”

Biden administration officials insisted no final decision had been made. Nevertheless, with the deadline looming, administration officials are jockeying to influence Mr. Biden and his top national security officials. While Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of defense, has not signaled what course of action he prefers, some Pentagon officials who believe American forces should stay longer have pointed to the intelligence assessment predicting a Taliban takeover of the country.

approximately 3,500 American troops who remain, whether it is May 1 or at the end of the year, will doom the mission. The only way to preserve hard-fought gains in Afghanistan, they said, is to keep the small American presence there long enough to force a lasting deal between the Taliban and Afghan government.

These officials have used the intelligence assessment to make the point that a withdrawal this year will lead to a fall of the current government, a sharp erosion of women’s rights and the return of international terrorist groups. A rush to the exit, some officials said, will only drag the United States back into Afghanistan soon after leaving — much as was the case in Iraq in 2014, three years after the Obama administration pulled troops out of that conflict.

The White House has held a series of meetings on Afghanistan, and more are to come. On Thursday, the president said he was waiting for briefings from Mr. Austin, who met recently with Afghan officials, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who conferred this week with NATO allies, for their bottom-line advice on what he should do.

For many Biden administration officials, the issue that has resonated the most clearly is the threat that a Taliban takeover could pose to Afghan women. While some former intelligence officials predict the Taliban will initially take care not to roll back women’s rights altogether — at least in major cities — if they take over the entire country, it will be difficult to guarantee protections for women, such as education for girls and access to health care.

“Any agreement must preserve their gains if Afghanistan wants to ensure the international community’s continued political and financial support,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council this week. “We will not give an inch on this point.”

The Biden administration is making a final effort before May 1 to show progress in slow-moving negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban, according to American officials, are stalling.

The administration is pushing the two sides to participate in a peace conference in Turkey to demonstrate progress. Simultaneously, the American and Taliban negotiators continue to try to cement a 90-day reduction in violence, but so far, both sides have hesitated to agree.

The classified intelligence assessment of the Taliban largely taking control assumes that the Afghan government and the Taliban fail to reach a political agreement and that a civil war would erupt after the American exit.

Administration officials warned that making any intelligence estimate is challenging, that predictions about the future are always imprecise and that various factors influence the analysis.

For example, intelligence estimates depend on whether international funding for the Afghan government remains in place. The more money the United States and its allies provide Afghanistan, the longer the government in Kabul should be able to retain control of some of the country. But some officials said that history shows that once American troops are withdrawn, Congress moves quickly to cut financial support for partner forces.

There is also a debate in Washington about the seriousness of the threat of a return of terrorist groups. For now, the number of Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan is very small, a senior U.S. official said.

Some senior lawmakers with access to the classified assessments said that it was not certain that if the United States withdrew that Al Qaeda could rebuild a base in Afghanistan from which to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States.

“What is that threat really going to be?” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington State and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said this week during a virtual conference on Afghanistan. “This isn’t the 1990s when Al Qaeda set up camps, and they had the Taliban and no one was paying attention to them.”

Mr. Smith said keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan actually increased the risk to Americans there, incurred greater financial costs and handed a propaganda victory and recruiting tool to the United States’ enemies.

Some counterterrorism officials believe that Al Qaeda would prefer to re-establish its headquarters in Afghanistan, should American troops withdraw. But other officials said Al Qaeda’s leadership might be just as likely to look to Africa or the Middle East.

While American intelligence officials have been mostly focused on the threat of Al Qaeda, senior military officials have also raised the prospect of a growth in the power of the Afghanistan arm of the Islamic State.

But in recent years, the Taliban have been at odds with the Islamic State. The two groups have fought, and the Taliban have for the most part pushed back Islamic State forces.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where ISIS and the Taliban would strategically cooperate or collaborate in Afghanistan,” said Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst. “The Taliban is an ideological organization, and that ideology is Afghan-centric and not aligned with ISIS’ overarching goals.”

The intelligence estimate predicted that the Taliban would relatively swiftly expand their control over Afghanistan, suggesting that the Afghan security forces remain fragile despite years of training by the American military and billions of dollars in U.S. funding.

Offensives last year in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, two areas in the country’s south where the Taliban have long held sway, demonstrated that the police and local forces are unable to hold ground, prompting elite commando forces and regular army troops to take their place — a tactic that is likely unsustainable in the long run.

The Afghan security forces still rely heavily on U.S. air support to hold territory, which American military leaders acknowledged this week. It is unclear whether that American air power would continue if U.S. forces left Afghanistan, perhaps launched from bases in the Persian Gulf, although the Pentagon has drawn up such options for the White House.

“The capabilities that the U.S. provides for the Afghans to be able to combat the Taliban and other threats that reside in Afghanistan are critical to their success,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the head of Special Operations Command, told the Senate on Thursday.

Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul.

View Source

137 People Killed in Niger in Series of Attacks on Villages Along Mali Border

NIAMEY, Niger — Armed attackers riding motorcycles killed 137 people in coordinated raids on villages in southwestern Niger on Sunday, the government said, making it one of the deadliest days in recent memory in a country ravaged by Islamist violence.

The unidentified assailants struck in the afternoon, raiding three villages and other hamlets in the Tahoua region bordering Mali, the government said on Monday, revising the toll up from a previous estimate by local authorities of about 60 killed.

“By systematically targeting civilians, these armed bandits are reaching a new level of horror and savagery,” it said in a statement, announcing three days of national mourning.

It did not say who authorities believed was behind the attacks, but the violence comes amid a wider security crisis across West Africa’s Sahel region, which is being fueled by militants linked to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and ethnic militias.

a revenge attack on the villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye in Tillabéri.

View Source

As Biden Seeks to End U.S. Involvement in Yemen, Iran-Backed Fighters Launch More Attacks

MARIB, Yemen—A detachment of Saudi-backed Yemeni soldiers—armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and a single tank—keep watch from a rock outcropping, scanning the vast expanse of desert below them for signs of activity by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters.

“They’re out there,” said Yemeni Maj. Gen. Ameen Alwaili. “They’re pushing in from three sides.”

This small outpost is on the front lines of a continuing battle between the Houthi rebels and Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government, which is trying to hold on to Marib, its last stronghold in the north of the country and site of a coveted oil refinery.

In recent weeks, Houthi forces, using armed drones, ballistic missiles and mortars, have moved within a few miles of the city.

If Marib falls, Yemeni government and Saudi officials warned, it would give the Houthis and their Iranian allies control of a strategically valuable area that could serve as a launchpad for continued strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry infrastructure and other targets.

A fighter with forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government mans a heavy machine gun northwest of Marib in central Yemen on Feb. 11.

Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Saudi and Yemeni officials said recent moves by President Biden to disentangle the U.S. from the grinding six-year civil war appear to have emboldened Houthi fighters. Last month, the Houthis launched more drone and missile strikes than in any other month during the conflict, U.S. officials say.

“The Houthis misunderstood Biden’s moves and saw them as a green light,” said a senior Saudi official.

Mr. Biden has scaled back U.S. support for the Saudi war effort and dispatched a special envoy to try to broker a cease-fire and eventual peace deal between the two sides. Ending Houthi strikes on Saudi Arabia is a central goal of Washington’s diplomatic push, U.S. officials said.

“If we cannot make progress now, the country will spiral into greater conflict and instability,” Tim Lenderking, the special U.S. envoy, said last week after presenting the Houthis with a new proposal to end the fighting. “Let us seize this moment.”

The war in Yemen has become a political albatross for Riyadh and Washington, with both trying to find an exit strategy from a conflict that has spawned what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Aid groups say diplomatic deadlock is deepening the crisis by holding up delivery of food and fuel needed to avert widespread famine in Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition mounted a series of airstrikes on Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sanaa on March 7.

Photo: Hani Al-Ansi/Zuma Press

A recently-released Houthi prisoner visits a cemetery in Sana’a, Yemen, March 3.

Photo: yahya arhab/Shutterstock

Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has been Riyadh’s most important ally on the ground in Yemen. He also reversed a last-minute Trump administration move to officially declare the Houthis terrorists and impose economic sanctions on key leaders of the group.

Aid groups have applauded that move, saying a terror designation would have made it impossible for them to work in Houthi-controlled areas.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent the Saudi military into Yemen in 2015 to support a weak Yemen government struggling to stop the Houthis. The intervention quickly became a military quagmire, Iran stepped up support for the Houthis and the rebels captured the splintered country’s capital.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What is the solution to the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen?Join the conversation below.

Errant airstrikes that killed thousands of women and children over the years have eroded Western backing for the Saudi effort. Under pressure, then-President Trump reduced U.S. support for Saudis in 2018 by curtailing aerial refueling for planes carrying out the airstrikes.

But he also agreed to some key requests from the Gulf nations. Shortly before leaving office, Mr. Trump signed off on multibillion-dollar arms deals for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, including more precision-guided missiles used in Yemen.

The new approach to Yemen is part of a broader Biden administration shift in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s support in Washington has plunged in recent years. The war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul fueled bipartisan discontent. Securing a peace deal in Yemen is one way U.S. officials say Riyadh can begin to repair its relationships in Washington.

The Pentagon is now focusing on providing assistance that’s defensive in nature, such as helping the Saudi military shoot down Houthi missiles and drones targeting the country.

The U.S. has also scaled back intelligence support for the Saudis. “It is more limited than it’s ever been,” one U.S. military official said.

More on Yemen’s Civil War

U.S. officials said surveillance flights over Yemen are more focused on the parallel threat posed by the country’s branch of al Qaeda, which is considered the most dangerous branch of the extremist group behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The U.S. has carried out scores of drone strikes over the past decade on al Qaeda forces in Yemen, where thousands of its members are believed to still operate. The U.S. will keep warning the Saudis of imminent Houthi rocket and drone strikes if they get intelligence on them, the official said.

While the U.S. is working to get out of Yemen, Iran is trying to deepen its reach, Saudi, Yemeni and U.S. officials say. The U.S. has repeatedly seized Iranian-made weapons off the coast of Yemen that American military officials said were sent by Tehran to aid Houthi forces.

Iran denies the American accusations.

U.S., Saudi and Yemeni officials also say Hasan Irlu, an Iranian military commander serving as Iran’s diplomat in Houthi-controlled Yemen, has brought a new level of battlefield sophistication to the Houthis.

Last December, the Trump administration accused Mr. Irlu of training Houthi fighters to use advanced weapons. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Mr. Irlu.

So far, the Houthis have rebuffed U.S. diplomatic pressure to agree to a cease-fire with Saudi Arabia, after which the Saudis would end their blockades of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the main gateway for humanitarian aid, and the Sana’a airport.

Houthi leaders have said they would only agree to a national cease-fire if the Saudis end the blockades first.

One Houthi official briefed on the continuing talks accused the U.S. of siding with Saudi Arabia by condemning Houthi missile and drone strikes on the Saudis.

“The U.S. doesn’t seem serious about ending the war in Yemen,” the official said. “When they show seriousness, we can meet and talk directly with them.”

Saudi officials want Mr. Biden to release his hold on the sale of precision-guided missiles, which they say are used only to defend their allies from Houthi attacks. U.S. officials expressed little openness to approving the sales, but suggested they might revisit the issue if Saudi Arabia disengages from Yemen.

A soldier stands at the Yemen military position on the front lines of the fight against Houthi forces outside Marib, Yemen, on March 9.

Photo: Dion Nissenbaum/The Wall Street Journal

From a command center bored into a gravel-covered hillside near Marib, Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Maqdishi, defense minister for the U.N.-backed government in Yemen, accused the Houthis of “using waves of soldiers like sheep.”

He said he hoped the U.S. would rethink its approach. “People trust the U.S. to stand with Saudi Arabia against Iran and its proxies,” he said. “We are putting our hope in that.”

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

View Source