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In Washington, opposition has been mounting to Saudi Arabia’s ruinous role in Yemen’s civil war. There is widespread outrage over grisly incidents in which civilians have died at the hands of a Saudi-led military coalition, including a missile strike last month that killed dozens of schoolchildren.
But the Trump administration is endorsing the coalition’s apparent efforts to cut down on such deaths. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “certified” to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had shown “demonstrable actions” to limit casualties in their campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Pompeo was forced to make this declaration after Congress established a legal requirement earlier this year for the administration to answer for the conduct of the war in Yemen. Failing that, the United States would have to restrict its assistance to the Saudis, which includes refueling coalition aircraft operating against the Iran-backed Houthis.
The war in Yemen, as readers of Today’s WorldView know, is entering its fifth year, and it has exacted an immense humanitarian toll. In addition to innocents killed by airstrikes, a significant proportion of the country’s population is suffering from hunger and malnutrition, exacerbated by the coalition’s blockade of Yemeni ports. A recent U.N. report suggested all sides were probably guilty of war crimes in a conflict that has claimed some 10,000 lives already.
In a statement, Pompeo said the United States was intent on ending the war and delivering aid to a beleaguered nation. “The Trump administration has been clear that ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority,” the statement read. “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.”
But peace is nowhere on the horizon. The latest round of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva ended in failure last week, and the Trump administration is far more focused on the supposed Iranian threat than the suffering of the Yemeni people. Pompeo and other Trump lieutenants, including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, have sought to shift the focus to the Houthis’ ability to fire missiles at Saudi Arabia — and place the onus on Iran to curb its behavior.
“Since taking office, President Trump has strengthened U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” noted my colleague Missy Ryan. “While his administration has criticized the coalition periodically for its handling of the war, it has restored arms sales suspended under President Barack Obama and echoed gulf concerns about the Houthis’ ties to Iran.”
Leaders in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are happy for Washington to push this line. “The Middle East is a complicated and dangerous place, but the UAE is absolutely clear about our vision of the region and the partners who share it,” wrote the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, in an op-ed for The Post. “While some hedge their bets with Iran, the UAE is fighting its most dangerous proxy. While others enable and encourage the extremists, the UAE stands with the United States on the front line to defeat them. It is difficult and deadly work, but the UAE, the United States and the international community are safer because of it.”
Those same leaders have shown little sign of contrition over the war’s conduct. On Wednesday, Saudi and Emirati forces renewed their siege of the crucial port city of Hodeida, which is still under Houthi control. But after a backlash over its indiscriminate airstrikes, the coalition has said it revised its rules of engagement, and Ryan reported that U.S. officials have been encouraged by that reaction.
Others aren’t so sure. “It’s a rubber stamp for Saudi Arabia,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) of Pompeo’s decision.
“If you’re keeping score at home, the US refuses to certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, which the [U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency] says it is,” tweeted the Economist’s Gregg Carlstrom, “and certifies that the Saudi-led coalition is protecting civilians in Yemen, which the UN says it is not.”
Trump administration officials who spoke to The Post believe that maintaining support for the Saudis and Emiratis allows the United States to have better oversight over how the war is fought. “It’s an intense debate about what is a glaring problem about civilian casualties and whether we continue to work with the Saudis or whether we feel we have to put some distance” between Washington and the war effort, an administration official told my colleagues. “A lot of us also feel that things are going to get worse if we’re not even involved.”
But some lawmakers vehemently reject that view. “The ongoing civil war is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and terrorist threat,” wrote Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) for The Post. “A major contributor to the devastation and chaos is the indiscriminate bombing campaign led by a coalition made up of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which receives refueling, intelligence and targeting support from the United States.”
The senators, echoing a growing consensus among their colleagues, said it was a “moral imperative” to ensure the Saudi-led coalition “stops killing civilians.”
Critics elsewhere point to the double standards framing the conflict. “Saudi Arabia does not deserve to be compared to Syria, whose leader seemingly did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against his people,” wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “But further continuation of the war in Yemen will validate voices saying that Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranians are doing in Syria.”
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