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U.S. is resisting calls to end its support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s war

March 20, 2018 at 6:00 AM

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The Post's Missy Ryan explains who the key players are in the conflict in Yemen and why the United States is supporting Saudi Arabia there. (Sarah Parnass, Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

NEHM, Yemen — Above lazy booms of artillery shelling and howling mountain winds, a Yemeni army commander described the endgame of his country’s destructive, three-year civil war in a way that suggested a bloodier phase was yet to come.

The capital, Sanaa, sat 60 or so miles away, controlled by Yemen’s rebels. The commander, Gen. Nasser al-Thebani, predicted an imminent advance on the city, while eyeing a loftier goal.

“The strategy is the liberation of Yemen,” he said.

But neither Thebani’s government troops, backed by a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, nor their opponents, the rebel group known as the Houthis, have shown that they have the military strength to prevail. And as the battle grinds on, the United States has chosen to maintain its military support for the Saudi coalition — despite a rising tide of opposition to the war from U.S. lawmakers and increasingly dire warnings about its toll on civilians.

The United States refuels coalition warplanes, shares intelligence with the Saudis and provides them with munitions used in the air war. The Trump administration has weighed in with diplomatic assistance, too, bolstering the Saudi case for the war by publicly detailing what American officials allege is Iran’s growing military role on the side of the Houthis.

Gen. Nasser al-Thebani, a Yemeni government commander, speaks to his troops while leading the battle against Shiite Houthi rebels outside Sanaa on Jan. 31. (Glen Carey/Bloomberg News)

American officials say their involvement has tempered a military campaign that the Saudis felt compelled to conduct, with or without U.S. assistance, and has given them added leverage to press the Saudis to move toward negotiations. 

But the continuing U.S. support — fueled by a consensus among American and Saudi officials that Yemen is part of a broader regional struggle against Iran’s influence — may also reduce pressure on the Saudi government to quickly take steps that would deescalate the conflict, analysts said. 

Related: [U.N. probe details fallout of proxy war in Yemen between Saudi coalition and Iran]

“The Saudis feel they have time,” said Rafat Al-Akhali, a former Yemeni official who now runs a research project on state fragility at the University of Oxford. The Saudi leadership seemed convinced, he added, that the war was the only shot at reducing a military threat from the Houthis, including their firing of ballistic missiles into Saudi territory.

When it comes to the Saudis’ international allies, including the United States and Britain, “clearly there isn’t enough pressure to stop the war,” he said.

As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of his country’s intervention in Yemen, prepared to visit the White House, a group of aid agencies operating in the country called on President Trump to use the United States’ “unique ability to influence Saudi actions” to press for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 civilians and threatened Yemenis with starvation, a cholera epidemic and a deadly outbreak of diphtheria.

“Yemen is decimated,” they wrote in a letter March 14. “The suffering of Yemen’s people will end only when the war ends.”

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have taken unusual steps to voice their concerns about Saudi actions, and a bipartisan measure headed for a possible vote this week would force the United States to withdraw support for the war.

In a letter to senior lawmakers last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that ending American military involvement might reduce U.S. leverage with Saudi Arabia, endanger counterterrorism activities and actually increase civilian casualties — “all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis,” he wrote. 

'The friendship is real'

In the spring of 2015, as U.S. diplomats were working to conclude President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the White House was also grappling with mounting anger from its closest Persian Gulf allies. The region’s Sunni monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, feared that the deal would upend the Middle East’s power balance in favor of Shiite Iran.

While American officials were alarmed by the Houthi advance in Yemen, they had little desire to wade into a distant civil war. When U.S. officials learned of Saudi plans to conduct air attacks in Yemen — with what one official said was only 24 hours’ notice — they initially tried to discourage them. But seeing an opportunity to prove that Washington hadn’t abandoned a key ally, they quickly pivoted to a position of support

The U.S. military established a cell with Saudi Arabia to share real-time intelligence for the air campaign and sought to help the kingdom harden its defenses against Houthi attacks. 

Related: [Why Trump lashed out at Saudi Arabia about its role in Yemen’s war]

But officials grew more uncomfortable as reports of civilian deaths piled up, largely as a result of coalition airstrikes, and as human rights groups accused the United States of complicity. The tensions came to a head in the fall of 2016, when a Saudi strike killed more than 100 people at a funeral. Furious, the White House curtailed intelligence-sharing and withheld the sale of precision munitions coveted by the Saudis. 

The destruction following an airstrike by Saudi-led coalition airplanes Oct. 8, 2016, on a funeral hall in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. (Mohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

“In retrospect, the problem is that we did just enough to produce the perception of complicity, without doing enough to actually influence their behavior,” a former senior Obama administration official said. “We tried to take this principled middle position, which left us stuck.”

With Trump’s arrival in Washington in early 2017, frayed U.S.-Saudi ties looked set for a reboot. 

Trump, an opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran, had expressed a desire to restore ties with Persian Gulf partners. He also shared the Saudi view of Iran and promised to do more than Obama had to check Tehran’s influence throughout the region. 

As a sign of renewed U.S. support, the White House lifted the restriction on precision munition sales. It has also elevated its threats against Iran, showcasing advanced Iranian munitions that intelligence agencies say were smuggled into Yemen to threaten gulf powers. Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with weapons.  

“We see the war in Yemen as pushing back against Iran’s attempt to destabilize the entire region and beyond,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “So we think it’s important that the space not be yielded to them.” 

Continued support, the official said, would ease Saudi concerns that the United States might abandon its regional allies: “It’s making a statement that the friendship is real.” 

That display of friendship has made the United States a party to an increasingly complex and deadly battle: a conflict that Saudi officials, to illustrate their resolve, frequently compare to the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.

But American officials do not believe that the war can be decisively won. Coalition members, including the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, have backed separate and sometimes feuding forces, reducing their effectiveness. On the other side, a Houthi alliance fractured after the rebels killed former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, their erstwhile partner. Battlefield advances have slowed or stalled.  

On the verge of starvation

At the front line in Nehm, Gen. Thebani told visiting journalists last week that the assault on Sanaa would begin “sooner than you think.” But soldiers standing nearby said they had been stuck there for more than a year. 

In the meantime, the cost to civilians has mounted. In their letter to Trump, the aid agencies detailed a grim toll: More than 5,000 children have been killed or injured since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention three years ago. About 8.4 million Yemenis, or roughly a third of the population, are on the verge of starvation.  

Related: [Saudi Arabia, answering critics, announces new measures to ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis ]

The Saudi government recently announced expanded relief measures including an “air bridge” for aid shipments, safety measures for humanitarian workers and financial aid. A Saudi-sponsored trip for journalists to the Yemeni city of Marib last week was intended to highlight other efforts, including assistance to the war-wounded, children and internally displaced people. 

Aid groups have praised the measures but say they amount to little if the coalition does not ease obstacles facing commercial shippers and lift a de facto blockade of Yemen. In that effort, the Trump administration could play a central role, said Amanda Catanzano, the director for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, which operates in Yemen. 

Saudi soldiers stand guard March 12 before aid supplies are unloaded from a Saudi air force cargo plane at an airfield in Yemen’s central province of Marib. (Abdullah Al-Qadry/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

“They need to be pushing the Saudis to permanently open the ports at Hodeidah and Saleef, pushing for streamlined inspections, pushing on the opening of Sanaa airport. The crisis isn’t going to end in the absence of a political solution,” she added. “The U.S. has a big role to play in getting these parties to the table.” 

Frustration within the Trump administration reached a fever pitch in December when Trump, after being told of the humanitarian situation in his morning intelligence briefing, lashed out at Saudi Arabia, calling on the kingdom to make sure Yemenis received food and other supplies “immediately.” 

As part of a military assistance program, which American officials stress is “limited and defensive” in nature, a handful of U.S. military personnel sit in a room adjacent to where targeting takes place at the coalition’s command center in Riyadh.

While the United States provides intelligence used for Saudi sorties, American officials say they do not receive information about the outcome of Saudi strikes and are not involved in helping Saudi officials check targets against a “no-strike” list of more than 41,000 civilian sites.

Saudi and U.S. officials say targeting has improved, though U.S. military officials concede that the coalition’s dynamic strikes continue to be a source of problems. A United Nations panel of experts that investigated 10 airstrikes that killed 157 civilians last year concluded that any measures the coalition was taking to reduce harm to civilians were “largely inadequate and ineffective.”

Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.


Kareem Fahim is the Istanbul bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. He previously spent 11 years at the New York Times, covering the Arab world as a Cairo-based correspondent, among other assignments. Kareem also worked as a reporter at the Village Voice.

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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