Trump Doubles Down on War in Yemen

Despite mounting violence, the United States will continue supporting airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
A Yemeni man walks past burning tires in Aden on Sept. 6. (Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni man walks past burning tires in Aden on Sept. 6. (Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration certified to Congress on Wednesday that the Saudi-backed coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war was doing everything it could to prevent civilian casualties—a move that allows the U.S. military to continue supporting the coalition.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the certification in a memo to Congress, acknowledging that civilian casualties were “far too high” but saying Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking steps to bring the numbers down. Foreign Policy obtained declassified portions of the memo.

August was the deadliest month this year for civilian casualties in the war, which pits Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the coalition-supported forces. Most of the civilian casualties came from the Saudi-led attacks, according to the international humanitarian aid group Oxfam. This includes a U.S. bomb the Saudi coalition dropped on a school bus that killed dozens of children last month, sparking widespread condemnation.

The United States provides aerial refueling support to coalition aircraft involved in the campaign and also trains and advises the Saudi military to help improve targeting.

In a statement released Wednesday, Pompeo said the Gulf nations were “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” Defense Secretary James Mattis indicated his support for the certification in a similar statement released by the Pentagon.

The announcement drew swift rebukes from humanitarian organizations and several lawmakers leading the fight to pare down U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition.

“Pompeo’s ‘certification’ is a farce,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat and a leading critic of the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict, said in a tweet Wednesday.

“The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children. There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen. If this executive will not do it, then Congress must pass a War Powers Resolution,” he said.

The certification, which was required by Congress to release federal funding, came after months of fierce behind-the-scenes fighting between Capitol Hill and the Trump administration as lawmakers soured on U.S. support to the Saudis and Emiratis.

Michael Knights, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the coalition’s use of U.S.-made precision-guided munitions and U.S. refueling support does in fact reduce civilian casualties. Aerial refueling allows coalition aircraft to stay in the air longer so “they don’t have to hurry so much when they are undertaking strike operations,” he said.

Knights posited that the administration and Congress may be playing good cop, bad cop with the Saudis in order to pressure Riyadh into reducing the number of high-risk strikes.

“When you have a Congress that is threatening to cut off access to Saudi [precision-guided munitions] and refueling, it does strengthen the hand of the administration,” he said.

Under a provision in the defense policy bill, Congress required Pompeo to repeatedly certify that the coalition was fulfilling several objectives to continue to receive U.S. assistance. Congress requires Pompeo to recertify again in 180 days and a third time 360 days after the bill was signed into law.

The certification said the Saudi-led coalition was making good faith efforts to peacefully negotiate the end of the conflict, taking “appropriate measures” to reduce the widespread humanitarian crisis, and undertaking “demonstrable actions” to reduce civilian casualties. Pompeo positively certified that it was doing all three.

Pompeo said the coalition was taking concrete steps to reduce the number of civilians it killed. This included creating a “no-strike list” for its bombing campaign and committing to a $750 million U.S.-provided training program for the Royal Saudi Air Force to “reduce risk of civilian casualties.”

In the memo, Pompeo touted Saudi and Emirati humanitarian assistance to the war-wracked country, citing Riyadh’s $2 billion commitment in economic support to Yemen’s Central Bank and $1.5 billion to address humanitarian needs. In 2018, Pompeo said, the UAE separately provided $3.81 billion in humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

Notably, the memo also said Saudi Arabia and the UAE comply with applicable U.S. law on arms transfers and sales—“with rare exception”—but did not elaborate on what the exceptions were.

Despite the flood of cash, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. More than 22 million people, nearly three-fourths of the total population, require humanitarian aid and protection, and some 8 million people are at risk of starvation. There is little publicly available data on the total death toll, but estimates from the U.N. and other analysts put it at between 10,000 and 50,000.

Some experts and humanitarian aid workers saw Pompeo’s announcement on Yemen—and the congressional directive—as little more than a rubber stamp and sharply criticized Pompeo’s announcement.

“If ending the conflict in Yemen were really a national security priority for the United States, the U.S. government would use its considerable influence to stop the killing,” said Scott Paul, an expert on Yemen at Oxfam America.

He said the bombing was destroying critical civilian infrastructure, exacerbating the widespread humanitarian crisis.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman