Lawmakers Express Concern Over Trump Administration Support for Saudis in Yemen

Sec. Mattis: 'The ultimate solution here is not to say we’re going to pull out our support'

Yemeni fighters man a frontline position in an area which contains the main supply route linking Hodeidah city to the rebel-held capital Sanaa
Yemeni fighters near Hodeidah city / Getty Images
October 10, 2018

A bipartisan group of senators is calling on the Trump administration to reevaluate U.S. support for Gulf allies fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen amid reports of disproportionate civilian casualties.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, lawmakers raised "significant concerns" over his decision last month to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were doing enough to minimize the fatal impact of their military campaign in Yemen and complying with U.S. laws on arms sales.

The certification is required by law every 180 days to allow American aircraft to refuel warplanes belonging to the Saudi-led coalition.

"We find it difficult to reconcile known facts with at least two of your certifications," the senators wrote. "There has been a dramatic increase in civilian casualties and deaths from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes over the last few months. The death of dozens of children in successive Saudi airstrikes in August tragically and definitively underscored this trend and the failure of the Saudi-led coalition to undertake demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians."

The letter was spearheaded by Sens. Todd Young (R., Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), who authored the measure requiring that Pompeo certify Saudi and Emirate behavior in Yemen. It was also signed by Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine), Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), Chris Coons (D., Del.), Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), and Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.).

The letter comes as Saudi Arabia faces scrutiny over the disappearance of a Saudi critic and journalist who often contributed to the Washington Post. Lawmakers have demanded an investigation into the potential death of Jamal Khashoggi, who went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Congressional resistance to the Trump administration's backing of the Saudi-led coalition has grown in recent months amid concerns among some lawmakers that Gulf allies are using American weapons to commit war crimes.

In an attempt to oust Houthi rebels from Yemen's capital, Sana'a, the Saudi coalition has bombed weddings, funerals, markets, and other civilian infrastructure. The United Nations and other international aid groups have accused both the Saudis and Houthis of violating the laws of war.

The UN has called the four-year civil war the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than five million children at risk of famine. According to a report released last month by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, an estimated 166 people were killed in Yemen per day since June as civilian casualties soared.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has told reporters that he is "constantly reviewing" American support for the coalition, determining in September that it was "the right thing" to help Saudi Arabia defend its borders and reinstate the "rightful" UN-backed government in Sana'a.

"The ultimate solution here is not to say we’re going to pull out our support," Mattis said. "The bombs will still fall. But it’s not like we’re going to stop the war by then. And it would be very, perhaps, satisfying to some people that we did that, but the fact is more civilians would die. We’re not—I’m not willing to sign up for that."

The senators expressed concern in the letter that Pompeo's reiteration of U.S. support risked leaving the "Saudi-led coalition with the fundamental misunderstanding that the American people and their representatives in Congress are willing to accept the status quo in Yemen."

Lawmakers demanded that Pompeo respond to the letter by the end of October.

"We know you share our goals of ending the civil war, alleviating the humanitarian crisis, and protecting civilians," they wrote. "We also agree that the continuing civil war, worsening humanitarian crisis, and ongoing killing of civilians by the Saudi coalition only serves the interests of Iran and emboldens extremists who seek to harm Americans and our partners."

James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said Congress's "second-guessing" of the administration's Yemen policy is unhelpful given the complexity of the war and various misinformation campaigns led by Iran. He said the United States is helping to minimize the humanitarian costs by providing the coalition with intelligence and situational awareness.

"This would be like saying what’s going on in Syria is terrible so let’s back away and give the country to [Bashar al-] Assad," he told the Washington Free Beacon.

Update 3:32 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.