U.S. Support for Saudi Strikes in Yemen Raises War Crime Concerns

A top American lawmaker says the Obama administration’s military assistance to Riyadh may violate U.S. law.

Smoke rises above the Alhva camp, east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on April 17, 2015, following an alleged air strike by the Saudi-led alliance on Shiite Huthi rebels camps. Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country for Riyadh as the rebels supported by Iran advanced south, provoking the Saudi-led coalition to begin air strikes. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises above the Alhva camp, east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on April 17, 2015, following an alleged air strike by the Saudi-led alliance on Shiite Huthi rebels camps. Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country for Riyadh as the rebels supported by Iran advanced south, provoking the Saudi-led coalition to begin air strikes. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sept. 28, the same day President Barack Obama addressed world leaders before the U.N. General Assembly, warplanes from a U.S.-backed Saudi coalition struck a wedding party in Yemen. The attack killed as many as 135 people near the port city of Mokha and raised concerns about the possible perpetration of war crimes in Yemen.

At the United Nations, the U.N. Security Council has devoted little attention to the impact that coalition airstrikes have had on civilians in Yemen. The United States — which frequently condemns the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs in heavily populated neighborhoods — has registered virtually no public outrage over the Saudi-led coalition’s apparently indiscriminate bombing raids in Yemen. Obama didn’t even mention Yemen in his U.N. speech, which faulted Russia’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of a government that stands accused of killing the vast majority of the more than 200,000 people who have died in Syria’s civil war.

U.S. support for a military campaign that is inflicting extreme hardship on civilians in one of the Mideast’s poorest countries provides an awkward counterpoint to the Obama administration’s stated commitment to stand up for the region’s oppressed people. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, Obama vowed to oppose “the use of violence and repression against the people of the region” and to support “the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people.”

Washington’s support in Yemen has also provided ammunition to critics who have seized on the Saudi-led coalition’s use of American weapons against civilian targets to paint the United States as a hypocritical power that lectures its Syrian adversaries on human rights abuses while furnishing its allies with cluster bombs and precision rockets.

“There is certainly blowback to America’s reputation,” said Christopher Davidson, a British scholar and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. As a result, any suggestion that the United States was ever committed to the democracy movements arising out of the Arab Spring “will be treated with suspicion, probably well-founded,” he said.

Behind closed doors, the United States has sought to limit international scrutiny of rights abuses in Yemen. Last Friday, the United States blocked a proposal in a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee to have the committee’s chair, Lithuanian U.N. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, approach “all relevant parties to the conflict and stress their responsibility to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law,” according to Security Council diplomats. The committee also recommended that Murmokaite ask the key players to cooperate with its investigations into potential human rights abuses in Yemen.

The initiative garnered broad support in the 15-nation council, including from America’s allies Britain and France, as well as from rivals like Russia and China, according to council diplomats. The U.S. mission to the U.N. declined to comment on the closed-door deliberations.

The episode, however, provides a brutal reminder of a U.S.-backed conflict that has exacted a terrible toll on civilians and that puts the United States, which supplies the coalition with intelligence and logistics, on the defensive. And it has led human rights advocates and some U.S. lawmakers to question whether Saudi Arabia and the United States may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

“The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has received too little attention, and it directly, or indirectly, implicates us,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who noted that the airstrikes may violate legislation he authored barring the United States from providing security assistance to countries responsible for gross human rights abuses. “The reports of civilian casualties from Saudi air attacks in densely populated areas compel us to ask if these operations, supported by the United States, violate” that law, Leahy told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. In any event, he added, “there is the real possibility that [the air campaign] is making a bad situation worse.”

But other lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to do more to support Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbors, which they see as a critical counterpoint to Iranian influence in the Middle East. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), said the administration needs to “close the daylight” between the United States and its Gulf allies. He echoed claims by Gulf powers that Yemen’s Shiite Houthis are receiving backing from the Iranian government.

“The perception of a disengaged America and a resurgent Iran have led the GCC to take a stand,” Corker said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, at an Oct. 6 hearing on Yemen. Corker credited the Saudi-led coalition’s “use of American equipment and training with surprising effectiveness.” But he acknowledged that the campaign has been carried out with an “intolerable level of civilian casualties.”

Last week, a U.N. panel of experts responsible for tracking human rights violations and enforcing sanctions against individuals who threaten Yemen’s peace concluded that the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi insurgents, and fighters loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, all have routinely violated civilians’ human rights, according to a copy of a confidential report documenting the panel’s findings.

The panel singled out the coalition for committing “grave violations” of civilians’ rights, citing reports of indiscriminate airstrikes, as well as the targeting of markets, aid warehouses, and a camp for displaced Yemenis. It also raised concern that coalition forces may have intentionally obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to needy civilians.

The panel cited reports that the coalition treated the entire northern cities of Sadah and Marra as military targets, raising concerns that it considered civilian neighborhoods as legitimate strike zones.

The panel also faulted the coalition for providing civilians with insufficient warning before launching airstrikes.

About an hour or two prior to one bombing raid in the Houthi stronghold of Sadah, the coalition dropped warning leaflets across the city, according to a source cited in the report. But the warnings were largely ineffective as many of the city’s residents are illiterate. A second source told the panel that the coalition had issued a radio warning as early as seven hours before it started dropping bombs. But even that was not enough to allow civilians to evacuate. A severe fuel shortage — caused by the coalition’s blockade of Yemen’s ports — prevented residents from filling their gas tanks, forcing them to flee by foot.

“It is impossible for the population of the entire province of Sadah to leave within a few hours,”Llano Ortiz, the medical coordinator in Yemen for Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement last May, shortly after the coalition announced plans to bomb extensively throughout Sadah. “The bombing of civilians targets, with or without warning, is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. It is even more serious to target a whole province.”

The United States has acknowledged that it provides some intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. As Saudi Arabia’s chief arms supplier, the United States has also supplied the coalition’s air force with the overwhelming majority of rockets and bombs used in the campaign, according to Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera, who led a mission this summer that documented 13 coalition airstrikes that killed about 100 people, including 59 children.

Rovera says the coalition has clearly committed war crimes in a conflict that has left more than 5,000 civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict dead. But she said it is impossible to establish whether the United States is directly complicit because the military operation — as well as the extent of cooperation — is shrouded in secrecy. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty and other human rights groups have pressed for an independent investigation into crimes by both sides in the conflict.

At this stage, she said, there is “prima facie evidence” that members of the coalition have committed war crimes. But “more information would be needed to clearly establish what is the concrete role of the U.S., the U.K., and others [in the coalition]. We have been calling for an international, independent, and impartial investigation to establish the role and responsibility of the different parties.”

But one thing is clear, she added: “The range of weapons we have found on the ground are U.S. weapons.”

Saudi Arabia and its allies began striking Yemen in March in an effort to put down a rebellion by Houthi separatists, who toppled the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in January and placed him under house arrest. On March 25, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he currently resides. But in September, he paid a brief visit to the Yemeni port city of Aden before heading off to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly.

In late March, Hadi issued a plea to the Gulf states and the Arab League to use force against the Houthis and restore him to power. On March 26, Saudi Arabia led an air war against the Houthis and imposed a de facto naval blockade on the ports of Aden and al-Hudaydah. For a country that imports more than 90 percent of its food and fuel, the blockade was devastating, raising concerns about the possibility of famine in a country of more than 21 million.

The Saudi-led coalition has had its successes, retaking Aden in July and driving the Houthi forces and followers of Saleh from southern Yemen. The coalition deployed thousands of troops to begin a land offensive heading north from Aden to the capital, Sanaa. But it has been bogged down in a bloody ground war, with dozens of Emirati, Saudi, and Bahraini troops killed in a missile strike in the city of Marib. Although the coalition captured Marib, there are doubts about its ability to take Sanaa — let alone govern it. Meanwhile, Aden is reportedly plagued by chaos and lawlessness.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to distance itself from the coalition’s excesses, insisting that the United States played no role in deciding which targets to hit in Yemen. Behind the scenes, the United States has been urging the Saudis to wrap it up and make peace and to minimize the extent of suffering. U.S. and U.N. officials say that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are keen to begin talks with the Houthis. But they say Hadi has resisted.

“I found both in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates a desire, a will to move to the political phase as soon as possible,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters Thursday, Oct. 15, following a visit to the Persian Gulf. “I asked both sides to make that case very strongly to [the] Hadi government.”

On Sept. 4, Saudi King Salman assured Obama in Washington that he supported political talks “without preconditions” with the Houthis, according to an account of the meeting in a Sept. 28 letter to the U.N. Security Council from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

King Salman also assured Obama that he was committed to ensuring “unfettered access to all forms of humanitarian assistance, including fuel, into Yemen, and to work[ing] towards the opening of all Red Sea ports,” Power wrote.

“[W]e anticipate tangible results from these commitments, including the ability of humanitarian workers to operate in accordance with globally-recognized humanitarian principles,” Power added. “We also anticipate increased commercial activity to Yemen in the near future, with inspections occurring only when there are reasonable grounds to believe a vessel is carrying illicit arms. This will be critical to restoring the vital imports that provide the bulk of the country’s food, fuel, and other life-sustaining supplies.”

U.N. officials say they have seen little sign of improvement since then. “Our humanitarian colleagues say that only 1 percent of the monthly requirements for commercial fuel for Yemen were imported through Red Sea ports during September, down from a low of 12 percent in August,” Farhan Haq, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday. “Commercial food prices are reported to have increased by 28 percent during September over August, reaching some 45 percent above pre-crisis levels.”

A U.S. official said the White House is carefully tracking the progress of imports and expects “increased commercial activity to Yemen in the near future.”

“To meet growing humanitarian needs and avert a potential famine in Yemen, the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition must allow commercial and humanitarian goods, including fuel, to enter Yemen through all of its ports,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of not being named. “We place great importance on commitments made to allow such deliveries, including recently from President Hadi and King Salman.”

Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert and head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, said the United States has serious misgivings about the prospects of a Saudi military victory in Yemen. But he said the United States will likely continue providing military support as “a signal that they are not shifting the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia despite our outreach to Iran.”

“I guess I’m a cynic and I think this can go on for some time,” he added. Yemen’s conflict has been “far from the headlines, and Syria is taking up all the media bandwidth.”

Over the long term, Gause said, the Saudis and their allies will realize that military victory is unachievable in Yemen, and they will seek a political settlement. “I think they want to run the Houthis out of Sanaa before they are willing to negotiate,” he said. “Their position is we have these guys on the run, so why stop now.”

Photo credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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