Top Trump administration officials on Wednesday came to the defense of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, arguing that the two nations are doing their best to reduce civilian casualties in the bloody, three-year-old conflict in Yemen.
The certification to Congress this week from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and backed by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis — comes amid growing international condemnation of the civilian death toll in Yemen, which by all accounts is in the thousands.
Neither Mr. Pompeo nor Mr. Mattis provided detail on exactly what the Saudi-led coalition is doing to prevent more innocent bloodshed, and some lawmakers on Wednesday bashed the certification as nothing more than a U.S. “rubber stamp” for deplorable actions.
The administration was required by law to certify this week that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were doing all they could to save innocent lives and allow humanitarian aid to reach war-torn areas. Without that certification, the U.S. would’ve been blocked from refueling Saudi planes and providing other assistance under a defense spending bill passed by Congress last month.
The Saudi-led coalition is battling Iranian proxy forces in Yemen, and the conflict has far-reaching geopolitical implications for the region.
“I certified to Congress yesterday that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.
“The Trump Administration has been clear that ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority,” he continued. “We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible, and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
Mr. Mattis agreed, saying the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has shown a “commitment” to limit civilian deaths.
“I endorse and fully support Secretary Pompeo’s certification to the Congress that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure resulting from their military operations to end the civil war in Yemen,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition’s commitment is reflected in their support for these UN-led efforts. Alongside the Department of State we are actively engaged with Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting.”
But lawmakers of both parties have taken issue with the administration’s stance on the conflict and its continued policy of providing arms to Saudi Arabia and its regional partners. Last year, for example, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky joined with Democrats in an effort to stop a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia. And on Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, suggested the administration’s approach is contributing directly to the carnage in Yemen.
“For months, Congress has raised serious concerns about US support of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. @SecPompeo’s response today makes a mockery of congressional oversight authority,” she tweeted. “It’s not a certification — it’s a rubber stamp for Saudi Arabia.”
“The Trump Admin has all the facts here — but continues to support a coalition that bombs schoolchildren on a class trip,” she continued. “It’s wrong and does nothing to make America safer. We should use our influence to bring an end to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis — not contribute to it.”
The U.S. response comes amid a growing global outcry over the Saudi-led coalition’s actions, including an incident last month in which a Saudi-led airstrike killed at least 22 children aboard a school bus.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact total, Amnesty International estimates that at least 15,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the fighting began in 2015.
In the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law last month, Congress required Mr. Pompeo to officially certify that the Saudi coalition was actively trying to reduce those civilian casualty rates.
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