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National Security

Trump administration criticized for vouching for allies’ record in Yemen war

September 12, 2018 at 9:13 PM

Yemenis on Saturday walk through the debris of a building allegedly hit by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Democratic lawmakers blasted the Trump administration on Wednesday for standing by the conduct of its Persian Gulf allies in Yemen’s civil war, saying a new U.S. endorsement overlooked attacks on civilians and other actions that have deepened a humanitarian crisis.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the decision, in a new report submitted to Congress earlier in the day, to formally back the actions of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian aid for Yemenis defied those countries’ record.

“The Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns are taking scores of innocent lives and compounding the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Shaheen, who co-authored the legislative measure requiring the new report, said in a statement. “The coalition clearly hasn’t met these goals and it is evident that the administration is deliberately sidestepping congressional oversight.”

Condemnation from Shaheen and other Democrats of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decisionhighlights the high stakes of the administration’s handling of the conflict in Yemen, where the Pentagon has supported a Saudi-led coalition that has battled Houthi rebels since 2015.

Formally certifying the coalition’s actions in Yemen allows the Trump administration to continue aerial refueling of Saudi and UAE jets as they conduct air raids against the Houthis.

The certification question has crystallized the Trump administration’s quandary in Yemen, where two successive U.S. administrations have grappled with how to assist allies contend with Iranian-backed militias while addressing concerns about civilian harm.

In certifying that the coalition is taking “demonstrable actions” to reduce harm to noncombatants and mitigate humanitarian need, the administration has come down clearly on the side of its gulf allies, expressing reservations about the plight of noncombatants but emphasizing positive steps by partner countries.

Related: [Congress forces a reckoning on U.S. role in Yemen]

“We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for U.N.-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen,” allow aid deliveries and protect civilians, Pompeo said in a statement.

The UAE’s embassy in Washington, in a message on Twitter, said the decision affirms its “commitment to reducing the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen.”

The decision follows a debate within the Trump administration about whether to publicly endorse the gulf nations’ management of the war. Opposition to their conduct and to U.S. support for the coalition has grown in recent weeks amid airstrikes killing dozens of Yemeni children.

The conflict has exacerbated hunger and disease in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country, and some critics accuse the coalition of contributing to suffering by making it more difficult to import needed food and medicine.

Related: [Mattis: U.S. assistance to Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen ‘is not unconditional’]

In a memo submitted to Congress, the State Department said U.S. military support to the coalition advanced U.S. goals related to counterterrorism and combating Iran. Houthi missile attacks, enabled by Iran, had threatened U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia, it said.

The memo listed measures the United States had taken to help improve coalition air operations, including training on targeting procedures and the laws of war, but said that “recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices.”

The administration also said the coalition had taken steps to reduce delays in imports of humanitarian and commercial goods and made “urgent and good-faith efforts” to end the war.

In a separate statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went further than Pompeo, saying the gulf partners were “making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure resulting from their military operations to end the civil war in Yemen.”

If the administration had decided it could not attest to the coalition’s actions, it would almost certainly have used a waiver to allow military aid to continue.

While most of the criticism came from Democrats, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who sponsored the certification measure, said that “many questions remain” given the administration’s acknowledgment of rising civilian deaths and its statement that the gulf nations have not complied fully with laws regarding U.S.-provided weaponry. “I will continue to fight to hold our partners accountable,” he said in a statement.

Aid groups criticized the certification decision. Scott Paul, humanitarian policy lead for Oxfam America, said last month was the deadliest month of the war, including an Aug. 9 attack in which a Saudi jet struck a bus full of children.

“With Secretary Pompeo’s certification, the State Department demonstrated that it is blindly supporting military operations in Yemen without any allegiance to facts, moral code or humanitarian law,” he said.

The coalition initially described the bus as a “valid military target.” But an investigation later concluded it was a mistake and those responsible would be held to account.

John Hudson and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.


Missy Ryan writes about the Pentagon, military issues and national security for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 from Reuters, where she reported on U.S. national security and foreign policy issues. She has reported from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile.

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