One night in mid-August 2015, a fleet of warplanes circled over the Yemeni port city of Hodeida. Since that spring, a Saudi-led coalition had been carrying out a devastating bombing campaign. The United States had been helping the coalition with targeting, arguing that its precision guidance of airstrikes would mitigate civilian casualties.
But that night, the coalition raid leveled the port, destroying five massive cranes that were essential for unloading cargo ships. Clinging to the shore of the Red Sea, Hodeida is the entry point for nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s imported food.
With the cranes gone, the flow of goods into the country slowed to a trickle, and the international community scrambled to fend off a famine. The U.S. government donated $3.9 million to the World Food Program to purchase new cranes, which took months to arrive. When they did, the Saudi-led coalition turned away the ship that was carrying them. As the famine accelerated, the cranes sailed back to Dubai. Aid organizations accused the coalition of pursuing a deliberate strategy of starvation, one that has led to the worst humanitarian crisis of the century.
Despite the fact that the United States had paid for the cranes, one senior U.S. diplomat opposed their delivery. Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, argued that it was pointless to deliver the equipment because it would only be destroyed, either by coalition bombs, the opposition Houthis, or a future military offensive by the United Arab Emirates.
The cranes have yet to be delivered. According to multiple current and former State Department officials, the pushback was characteristic of Tueller, who, as the primary U.S. diplomatic liaison to the Saudi coalition, frequently took positions sympathetic to the Saudis and hostile to the rebel Houthis.
Tueller was and remains a central figure in peace negotiations, which have not resulted in a peace deal or a lasting cessation of hostilities. As talks have faltered, a cholera epidemic is spiraling out of control, the nation’s infrastructure has been reduced to rubble, and some 50,000 children are expected to die of disease and starvation by the end of this year.
This portrait of Tueller and his role in the failed peace negotiations is based on interviews with six current and former senior State Department and national security officials who worked closely with Tueller. All of them asked to remain anonymous in order to share diplomatically sensitive details.
Tueller is a career foreign service officer who has held posts throughout the Middle East, serving in Egypt, Iraq, and Kuwait. A graduate of Brigham Young University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a father of five, he rose steadily through the State Department ranks, gaining a reputation as a well-respected and deeply knowledgeable diplomat. He became ambassador to Kuwait in 2011, and attracted little public attention, aside from a happenstance run in with Kim Kardashian.
Around the same time, Arab Spring protests threatened the rule of longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s deputy, Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took control of the government as part of an internationally brokered agreement. His power was later cemented by an election in which only his name appeared on the ballot.
But in a bid to return to power, Saleh formed an alliance with his former enemies – the Houthis – and in 2014 they stormed the capital city and placed Hadi under house arrest. Hadi fled the country in March 2015; shortly afterward, Saudi Arabia began its air war to restore him to power.
The Houthis are mainly drawn from the Zaydi sect, a Shi‘ite group that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in northern Yemen until 1962. According to their leader, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, they are leading a nationalist revolution against corrupt officials, Islamist extremists, and their foreign allies. However, the group is itself backed by Iran, though the extent of Iran’s support and influence is frequently exaggerated. Iran cautioned the Houthis not to storm the capital, for example, and the Houthis disobeyed their warnings — a decision that arguably set in motion the crisis the engulfs the country today.
Tueller was confirmed as ambassador to Yemen in March of 2014, and a year later the United States evacuated its embassy in Sana’a. Saudi Arabia and its backers in the West – including the Obama administration — expected the war to end quickly. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 called on the Houthis to withdraw and demobilize and declared Hadi the legitimate president.
These were terms a victor would offer the enemy he had vanquished. By the end of 2015, however, it was obvious that the war would not end quickly. With Secretary of State John Kerry preoccupied with more pressing crises – like the situation in Syria – Tueller was largely left to his own devices.
During peace talks, Tueller energetically backed Hadi and Saudi Arabia’s one-sided peace plan based on U.N. Resolution 2216, according to current and former State Department officials. The framework required the Houthis immediately to surrender their weapons and leave the capital, with their political future undetermined. Later talks would determine what role the Houthis would have in Yemen’s future government.
The plan required the Houthis to trust that the parties that were currently bombing them would later give them a seat at the table. It sounded so unrealistic that some critics suspected it was an intentionally obstructionist and disingenuous offer from Hadi, designed to undermine the talks “by setting the stakes of the talks knowingly so high, so that the other side finds them unacceptable,” one diplomat told Reuters.
Tueller, who represented the United States at peace talks beginning in 2015, did not press the Saudis or Hadi to offer the Houthis better terms, the current and former State Department officials said. As a matter of policy, Tueller opposed the Houthis having any role in Yemen’s future government. Instead, he told the Houthis that they should agree to the plan before the humanitarian situation worsened.
Mohammed Abdul Salam, a spokesperson and negotiator for the Houthis, later said publicly that Tueller went even further than Hadi or the Saudis in pressuring him to accept the deal. In Abdul Salam’s telling, Tueller threatened that the coalition would wage economic warfare on Yemen if the Houthis did not accept an immediate surrender.
“The last meeting was with the American ambassador and the 18 ambassadors,” Abdul Salam said in a 2017 speech. “And he said, ‘You have before you an agreement. You either sign it or you will be faced with an economic embargo. We will move the bank, block imports, and close the Sana’a airport.’ That’s exactly what he said, in the presence of everyone.”
Multiple sources in Washington briefed on the negotiations said Abdul Salam’s version was indeed consistent with Tueller’s position that the Houthis had to accept the agreement as is, or else the Yemeni people would face worsening humanitarian conditions, though the sources were not in the room for the conversation.
Whether Tueller made that specific threat or not, it’s notable that the Houthi negotiator would make such a charge publicly. At the very least, Abdul Salam’s statement suggests a deep distrust between Tueller and a key party to the conflict.
By the spring of 2016 — more than a year into the war – both the Obama White House and State Department began to question why Tueller was pushing such a one-sided plan.
In May 2016, Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff, sent an email to Tueller asking why he didn’t support the formation of a national unity government. A unity government would include members of the various factions, giving the Houthis a seat at the table in the form of ministerial positions or other roles.
The email was one of several exchanges with Tueller that were widely circulated around the State Department. Its contents, and those of other exchanges with Tueller on the topic, were described to The Intercept and confirmed by multiple former officials.
Finer’s concerns were seconded by Eric Pelofsky, senior director for Yemen on Obama’s National Security Council, who also wrote directly to Tueller. Finer and Pelofsky, in their emails, urged Tueller to move past the framework provided by U.N. Resolution 2216 and offer something the Houthis might actually accept.
Tueller responded by saying that the Houthis were negotiating in bad faith. Saleh had already violated the internationally brokered agreement that put Hadi in power, he argued, so why wouldn’t they violate a future agreement that prescribed them a limited role in government?
The full-throated exchange of differing views was widely circulated around the State Department, and its contents were described and confirmed by multiple former officials. Finer and Pelofsky both declined to comment.
As the negotiations stretched on, State Department officials in D.C. began to feel like they were in the dark about exactly what Tueller was doing. Kerry’s staff pushed to receive more frequent updates. When press reports emerged about the negotiations being deadlocked, Finer pressed Tueller again on why he wasn’t pushing negotiations toward the idea of a unity government.
This time, Tueller gave a different response. He relayed to D.C. that he thought a unity government would be less willing to serve U.S. interests in Yemen; it would be less receptive to U.S. efforts to fight Al Qaeda in Yemen, and it would not secure Saudi Arabia’s southern border. (Ironically, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is in fact fighting alongside the coalition and against the Houthis.)
Kerry sent Tueller a new set of instructions, directing him to change his approach. Kerry told Tueller that he needed to promise the Houthis a role in a future government, and that plans for the Houthis to disarm and withdraw had to be achieved gradually, to show them the international community would honor their agreement. Finally, Kerry also viewed Hadi is an ineffective leader and believed the U.S. should stop demanding his return as head of state.
But the secretary of state didn’t trust Tueller to carry out his instructions. Kerry thought he had to be involved in the talks to push the new approach, and he spent much of the remainder of 2016 participating in Yemen’s peace negotiations. Kerry even met personally with Houthi representatives, who were growing frustrated with Tueller. Tueller, meanwhile, argued that Kerry personally intervening in the talks was premature and would not get the outcome Kerry wanted.
In a statement to The Intercept, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert described Tueller as a “devoted career diplomat” and said he has the “full confidence” in the new administration.
“The U.S. policy in Yemen remains unchanged: to work with our international partners to bring peace, prosperity, and security to Yemen,” said Nauert. “We have consistently supported the work of the U.N. Special Envoy and comprehensive peace negotiations under the auspices of the U.N.”
Tueller’s appointment was extended by the Trump administration, and he continues to serve as ambassador. Meanwhile, attempts at restarting the peace talks have stalled. The Houthis have questioned the impartiality of the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and refuse to meet with him. But Tueller has stood by Ahmed, arguing that he should have a role in future talks.
Under the new administration, the State Department has also seen its role in diplomacy diminished. Middle Eastern ambassadors and heads of state have gone around the State Department’s career diplomats — and even the secretary of state — and started lobbying Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner directly. Kushner is said to be in regular contact with UAE ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba, and he took an unannounced trip earlier this year to meet with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the architect of the Yemen war, just days before he launched a domestic crackdown.
Throughout the peace talks, Tueller believed that the Houthis wouldn’t negotiate in good faith unless they were forced to the table. After the Kuwait talks ended in August 2016, Tueller advocated for moving Yemen’s central bank out of rebel-controlled territory. The issue eventually became a sticking point in his correspondence with Finer, who was concerned about the humanitarian consequences.
Tueller argued that the Houthis were likely using the funds primarily to pay off their own supporters and that by relocating the bank to Aden, it would serve the Yemeni public more broadly. But State Department officials were apprehensive, and before the Obama administration supported the move, they wanted assurances that the new bank would actually distribute funds in the public interest.
But they never got those assurances, and when Hadi moved the bank in September 2016, it was without the official support of the U.S. But, reflecting the deteriorating relationship between Tueller and officials back in Washington, some State Department officials suspected Tueller had quietly supported the idea in Riyadh.
Last month, Naeurt, the State Department spokesperson, called on Saudi Arabia to open its ports to humanitarian organizations. In her statement to The Intercept, she denied that Tueller supported any repressive economic measures.
“Ambassador Tueller has never supported actions that have exacerbated economic and humanitarian suffering in Yemen,” said Naeurt. “Ambassador Tueller has repeatedly expressed grave concern and advocated forcefully and often with success to Republic of Yemen Government and the Saudi-led coalition for reversal or mitigation of actions that contribute to the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen.”
Throughout 2016, the Obama administration contemplated the idea of trying to isolate the Houthis by turning Saleh against them. Some thought that if Saleh could be persuaded to switch sides and ally himself with Saudi Arabia, it would drive a wedge into the enemy alliance and possibly end the war. Pelofsky even met with Saleh’s relatives in secret to discuss terms, but when Saleh demanded to be reinstated as president in return, the administration soured on the idea.
Tueller saw Saleh as corrupt and opportunistic, and despised the idea of him reclaiming the presidency. But as tensions began to increase between Saleh and the Houthis by September of 2017, he revisited the idea of exploiting a fracture. Tueller told the State Department that he thought a Saleh-Houthi split was likely and an opportunity the U.S. could take advantage of. He suggested the State Department prepare a white paper on how to exploit the tensions.
Some in the State Department suspected that Tueller had knowledge of a coming split from his discussions with the Saudis and Emiratis, and that he had quietly given his blessing for the plan to go forward.
The State Department declined to comment on any plan to turn Saleh, saying the agency does not comment on internal deliberations.
Earlier this month, Saleh offered to “turn a new page” with the coalition and called on his supporters to fight the Houthis. For 72 hours, Sanaa turned into a battleground as Saleh’s supporters fought the Houthis, backed up by coalition airstrikes. But the new strategy didn’t include an extraction plan for Saleh, and he was killed while trying to flee the city by car.
After years of stalemate, Saleh’s death has cast the future of Yemen’s war into deep uncertainty. Press reports emerged in the days following his death about an internet blackout throughout the country.
Meanwhile, nearly 17 million people are left on the brink of starvation. Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s chief humanitarian officer, has warned that it will get much worse if the coalition’s blockade continues. “It will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades,” said Lowcock, “with millions of victims.”
Correction: December 13, 2017
This story initially reported that the cranes Tueller opposed were eventually delivered to Hodeida. They have not been. Saudi Arabia has installed several cranes at ports the coalition controls.