August 17, 2018

IntelBrief: Will the U.S. Finally Do the Right Thing in Yemen?

A man inspects the wreckage of a bus at the site of a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Thursday, in Saada, Yemen, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018.  (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed).
  • The August 9 killing of at least 40 children in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike has created an uptick in Congressional interest in the U.S.’ role in Yemen.
  • For more than three years, the U.S. has been deeply involved in the war, directly supporting airstrikes that have killed many civilians.
  • Aside from the undeniable civilian deaths, the U.S.’ support for the Saudi-led coalition does not help U.S. national security.
  • The U.S. needs to use its leverage with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bring about a peaceful resolution to the war in Yemen: the country globally recognized as experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has tried to minimize its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.  At the same time, it contends its involvement is vital to limit civilian casualties through its training and assisting of the Saudi and UAE (coalition) forces. The war has been raging for over three years and shows no sign of ending. Atrocities against civilians have been a hallmark of the conflict, committed by both sides but with a far larger share of civilian casualties and damage to vital infrastructure having been wrought by the coalition’s air campaign; the Houthis have no air force. The U.S. maintains it only refuels coalition planes and has no idea what those planes do after they are refueled.

Aside from a few hearings in which DoD officials downplayed the U.S.’ role—while arguing it must continue—there has been no effective Congressional oversight of U.S. participation in the Yemen war, despite the attempts of some earnest Congressional Members. This legislative paralysis might continue, though there has been an uptick in attention paid in the aftermath of the latest killing of civilians. On August 9, a coalition airstrike killed over 50 people on a bus near the village of Dahyan in northern Yemen. Among those killed were at least 40 children.

On August 14, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to General Joseph Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), asking for clarification of the General’s testimony about the exact scope and scale of U.S. involvement in Yemen. In particular, the Senator’s letter sought to clarify Pentagon claims that it has no way to track the operations of the Saudi and UAE planes it refuels as they conduct airstrikes in Yemen. The Senator specifically requested information ‘about whether the U.S. does in fact have the capability to track the origins, purpose and results of U.S.-supported airstrikes should it choose to do so.’ A day earlier, Congressman Ted Lieu sent a letter to acting Inspector General for the Department of Defense, Glenn Fine, inquiring if ‘continued support by the U.S. could put our personnel in ethical and legal jeopardy of aiding and abetting war crimes.’

A defense policy bill signed by President Trump on August 13 has a provision that requires Secretary of State Pompeo to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking steps to prevent civilian deaths. If the Secretary is unable to do so, the U.S. must cease its mid-air refueling of Saudi and UAE planes. It is unclear by what measure the U.S. will make such a determination and, given the long pattern of civilian deaths by coalition airstrikes since the beginning of the war up until now, it is unclear if the U.S. will follow through with the provision.

The U.S. appears to have decided that Yemenis—even children—can pay whatever price is required to blunt Iranian influence in the region. It does not even seem to matter that the conflict has actually increased Iran’s influence on Houthi rebels. Still, the last week has seen more Congressional interest in U.S. culpability in Yemen than ever before.


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