- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Trump administration on Wednesday said it was sticking with Saudi Arabia and its allies, telling Congress that they are doing all they can to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen’s bloody civil war — a controversial conclusion that will permit continued U.S. support in the campaign and allow American military aid to keep flowing to the Saudi-led coalition.

The formal certification to the House and Senate, written by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and publicly backed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, drew harsh rebukes from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and from human rights groups. They say the U.S. is “rubber-stamping” Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign and protecting the valuable relationship with Riyadh and its hard-charging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the lives of innocent men, women and children.

Yemen has been in the midst of a brutal conflict for more than three years, with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels battling Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional partners for control. Islamist groups are operating with impunity in parts of the country.

The war, marked by repeated deadly strikes on civilians, cholera outbreaks and dire shortages of food and medical supplies, has been routinely deemed one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises by the United Nations and private aid groups.

Human rights organizations on Wednesday accused Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Mattis and other officials of blatantly lying in order to avoid offending Saudi Arabia.

“Today, the Trump administration once again put its Gulf allies ahead of Yemeni families who are struggling to survive,” said a statement by Scott Paul, leader of Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy.

“With Secretary Pompeo’s certification, the State Department demonstrated that it is blindly supporting military operations in Yemen without any allegiance to facts, moral code or humanitarian law,” he said.

The Obama and Trump administrations have offered logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led alliance despite rising criticism of the stalemated conflict. Prodded by critics of the war, Congress passed legislation last month requiring Mr. Pompeo to certify by this week that the Saudis were doing all they could to minimize civilian deaths or face a cutoff of all American aid.

“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 brief statement late Tuesday that offered no details on what the Saudis and their allies were doing to limit collateral damage.

The statement continued, “We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for U.N.-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 group has shown a commitment to limit civilian deaths.

Criticism for both sides

U.N. relief officials and a host of other international organizations and aid groups have long criticized actions by both sides in Yemen’s civil war. They cite the soaring number of civilian deaths, the millions of people forced out of their homes, the outbreaks of disease, the lack of clean drinking water and worsening famine.

Oxfam America estimates that nearly 1,000 Yemeni civilians, including more than 300 children, were killed last month alone. That toll included a widely publicized incident in which a Saudi airstrike hit a school bus, reportedly killing 40 people, including nearly two dozen children.

The U.S. role in support of the Saudis, part of a broader policy of limiting Iranian influence in the region, has drawn bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill.

Over the summer, lawmakers inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act language that would prohibit the administration from refueling Saudi planes and aiding in other ways unless Mr. Pompeo made the required certification. But many lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the brief statements by Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Mattis, arguing that U.S. support is prolonging the conflict, not helping bring it to an end.

Mr. Pompeo’s certification “makes a mockery of congressional oversight authority,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted Wednesday. “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.”

Although an exact number is difficult to determine, Amnesty International estimates that at least 15,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the fighting began in 2015. Oxfam estimated that August was the deadliest month so far for civilians.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Yemen’s armed forces and its allies seized control of two main roads at the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Al Jazeera reported, cutting off a main supply route for Houthi rebels who still control the city. The Saudi-led coalition resumed supporting airstrikes in the region.

The Saudis in June launched a major assault to retake the key port from the Houthi rebels, though aid groups have warned that Hodeida is a crucial entry point for aid and that any degradation of the port — either by airstrikes or fighting on the ground — could make the humanitarian crisis in Yemen even worse.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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