The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi role in devastating Yemen war comes under new scrutiny after Khashoggi killing

Yemeni fighters from the Popular Resistance Committees, forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, take part in a graduation ceremony in the Yemeni city of Taez on Oct. 27. (Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — In Saudi Arabia’s version of its war in neighboring Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition carefully chooses targets for its airstrikes. The rapidly rising civilian death counts reported by the United Nations and humanitarian groups are highly exaggerated. So are the accounts of an impending famine caused by war. And the coalition is in no way interfering with humanitarian aid or with assistance to Yemen’s beleaguered economy.

But now that narrative is wearing thin, critics say.

The killing in Istanbul of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2 by Saudi agents — and Saudi Arabia’s repeated initial denials of any knowledge of his fate — is raising new concerns about the Saudi account of how the kingdom is waging its military campaign in Yemen.

“It’s thrown open the doors of doubt to the entire Saudi version of the war in Yemen,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University. “It is no longer able to just tell the world what it wants it to think without the world now being suspicious and skeptical.”

As doubts multiply, they are raising questions anew about whether the Trump administration can trust what Saudi Arabia is telling U.S. officials about its conduct of the war in Yemen, especially its role in civilian casualties and human rights violations. Administration officials rely on the Saudi information in urging U.S. lawmakers to allow more American weapons sales and other military assistance to the kingdom.

The United States supports the Saudi-led forces in their fight against a rebel insurgency by refueling their jets, and by providing intelligence and logistical support in addition to billions of dollars in weapons sales.

Since the war began in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has sought to oust the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen and restore to power the internationally recognized Yemeni government. While Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are backing the government forces, the rebels, who are Shiites, are supported by Shiite Iran.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis certified to Congress that the Saudi-led coalition was making “every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.” A senior White House official, speaking in Cairo last week, said the pair “did consult with a variety of sources” and were certain in their conclusion.

Those “sources” include the Saudis themselves, who are the only ones investigating civilian casualties caused by airstrikes. And only in a handful of cases has the Saudi-led coalition found that it has killed civilians, contradicting information collected by the United Nations and humanitarian groups.

The U.N. human rights office estimates that more than 16,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the war began, most of them by airstrikes. The Saudi-led coalition is the only party to the conflict that uses military jets.

The independent Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project says the toll is far greater, estimating that more than 50,000 civilians have died over this period.

The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan visited Raqah, a remote village in northern Yemen, about a month after it was hit by an airstrike. The attack killed 22 people. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan, Lorenzo Tugnoli, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

In most cases of reported civilian deaths, no investigations follow. Saudi officials have regularly said civilian casualties are accidental, calling them collateral damage in strikes against carefully selected military targets.

“It no longer looks like an accident, just like Khashoggi was not an accident,” Kendall said.

Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section and a critic of the Saudi leadership, was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. While Saudi officials said for more than two weeks that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, they later acknowledged that he had died inside the mission but initially attributed his death to a fistfight. Saudi officials now say they accept the conclusion of Turkish investigators that his death was a planned killing.

President Trump claimed Oct. 23 that Saudi Arabia carried out a “very bad” plot to kill Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump last week said that the Saudis had engaged in “one of the worst [coverups] in the history of coverups.”

Emily Thornberry, a British lawmaker, told her country’s Parliament that “we have seen a repeated pattern played out” by the Saudis in how they handled the Khashoggi killing and have managed the Yemen campaign.

“When major civilian casualties are reported, first they deny the reports are true, then they deny responsibility,” said Thornberry, a member of the opposition Labour Party. “And when the proof becomes incontrovertible, they say it is all a terrible mistake. They blame rogue elements, promise those will be punished and say it will not happen again — until the next time, when it does.”

In Cairo, the senior White House official said the U.S.-Saudi relationship, traditionally very close, could be improved. “I think we do need more transparency generally,” the official said.

Regarding the Yemen conflict in particular, the official said the administration was “confident” in the information Saudi Arabia is supplying. “In terms of Yemen, we have a fair amount of visibility,” the official told a small group of journalists, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment freely.

The continuing conflict is also driving a humanitarian crisis that has steadily worsened this year. At the U.N. Security Council last week, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned that at least 14 million Yemenis — nearly half the country’s population — are on the verge of famine. More than 3 million have fled their homes as a cholera epidemic rages, while thousands have died of preventable diseases.

Humanitarian agencies have accused the Saudi-led coalition of contributing to that crisis by waging economic warfare in Yemen. There have been more than 18,000 airstrikes since the war began, and a third of those have targeted civilian sites, including farms, markets, water treatment facilities, power plants, hospitals, clinics and food warehouses and other storage sites, according to the Yemen Data Project.

The coalition, meanwhile, has imposed import restrictions, in particular targeting the rebel-controlled port of Hodeidah, a vital gateway for imports of food, fuel, medicines and other supplies into the country.

The resulting shortage of fuel has in turn driven up transport costs, making food unaffordable for most Yemenis. The Houthis, too, are at fault, because they impose heavy taxes on import businesses and at checkpoints.

“Yemen has long been bombarded with airstrikes and subjected to strangling tactics of war,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement. “Mass starvation is a deadly byproduct of actions taken by warring parties and the western nations propping them up. The way the war is waged has systematically choked civilians by making less food available and affordable to millions of people.”

There is no direct American oversight of how aircraft refueled by the U.S. military carry out raids or how U.S.-supplied bombs are used. American officials say they rely on the Saudis for this kind of information.

Speaking in August, a senior Trump administration official said it was “possible” that U.S.-refueled jets had killed civilians, “but we don’t know.”

“We would have to have Saudis provide us information, but they don’t in the normal course of events provide to us,” that official said.

Those comments came after a Saudi coalition airstrike in August killed more than 40 schoolchildren on a bus in northern Yemen. When the United Nations called for an independent investigation, the Trump administration said it preferred to let the Saudis do their own probe. “Let’s give the Saudis a chance to do an investigation and see what that produces,” the official said.

The Saudis initially declared that Houthi rebels were on the bus and that the vehicle was a legitimate target, describing the children as collateral damage. Only after international pressure, fueled by images of the children’s charred bodies, did the Saudis accept responsibility.

A report by U.N. investigators in August called on countries to stop supplying weapons that could be used in the war. That prompted Amnesty International to warn in a statement that the United States, “by continuing to transfer weaponry to its Saudi allies, may be at risk of making itself an accessory to war crimes,” adding more significance to the quality of information the Saudis provide the United States.

Some critics of the Saudi leadership see a similar ruthlessness in the Yemen campaign and in the killing of Khashoggi, and they have increasingly cited what they say is the hand of Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in both. These critics also see parallels in the way the Saudis have responded to reports of Yemeni civilian casualties and Khashoggi’s murder.

“This is exactly the same pattern we have seen here,” said the British lawmaker Thornberry, referring to the killing of Khashoggi “which speaks of a crown prince who takes his allies for fools and relies on the fact that his lies will be believed, he will be exonerated and that everyone will return to business as usual once the publicity has subsided.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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