On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that the coalition of Persian Gulf monarchies waging a war in Yemen was taking sufficient steps to protect civilians. The declaration by Pompeo — which flew in the face of years of criticisms of the coalition’s conduct in the war by international bodies and human rights groups — allowed the U.S. to continue refueling coalition jets.
Pompeo’s vetting of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was required by a bipartisan amendment to the annual defense spending bill signed into law last month by President Donald Trump. Pompeo made the announcement of his certification in a statement, saying that the two Gulf countries were “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.”
In a separate seven-page memo sent to Congress and obtained by The Intercept, Pompeo further justified the decision, citing U.S. training of the Royal Saudi Air Force and the formation of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team in 2016.
“Pompeo’s description of doing everything possible is wrong,” Larry Lewis, the State Department’s former senior civilian harm adviser, told The Intercept. Lewis, who was pushed out last year during Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state, previously gave trainings to Saudi pilots and assisted in the formation of the assessment team.
“Pompeo’s description of doing everything possible is wrong.”
Humanitarian groups pilloried the decision, which came less than a month after a bomb from a coalition jet killed dozens of children in a school bus in northern Yemen. The aid group Oxfam reported that August was the deadliest month of the more-than-three-year war. “This administration is doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead.
On Wednesday, local reports indicated that fighting and airstrikes had intensified in the vicinity of Hodeidah, Yemen’s largest port and a vital entry point for aid — and a target of UAE-led attacks.
In addition to billions in weapons sales and logistical support, including intelligence assistance, the aerial refueling of coalition jets — which began shortly after the Saudi-led war in March 2015 — is seen as the most concrete embodiment of the U.S.’s daily involvement in the war.
The full Pompeo memo to Congress, published here for the first time, conveys the breadth of justifications the Trump administration employs in its support of the Gulf coalition.
Pompeo referenced not just the ongoing fight with Iranian-supported Houthi rebel forces and their ballistic missile arsenal, but also the drive to counter Al Qaeda and Islamic State activity in the country’s south. (The Houthis and Al Qaeda have at times fought one another in Yemen.) The refueling amendment included several carveouts for specific missions, including support for operations against both Al Qaeda and ISIS in the country — though such carveouts will not be necessary with Pompeo’s broader certification.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strong counterterrorism partners.”
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strong counterterrorism partners,” says the memo, citing the expulsion of Al Qaeda’s affiliate from the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in May 2016, cutting off “a significant source of revenue of the terrorist group.”
Last month, the Associated Press reported that the retreat of fighters with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from Mukalla and other areas came largely without fighting and was greased with cash and permission to take weapons and other equipment. “Hundreds more [Al Qaeda fighters] were recruited to join the coalition itself,” reported the AP.
Pompeo cited these developments as part of a trend toward a Gulf coalition victory. “The Administration believes that the support that the United States provides to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is helping defeat ISIS-Y and AQAP and counter Iran’s malign activities,” he wrote.
Reliable data on the refueling has proven elusive, but the bulk of fuel has not gone to the Saudis, but to the Emiratis, who in turn have been the U.S.’s principal partner against extremist groups.
As laid out in the memo, the rationale for refueling and the larger support package is buttressed by such long standing counterterror operations — efforts in Yemen that enjoy far wider support among even staunch congressional critics of the campaign to bomb Houthi rebels into submission. Though Pompeo cited the UAE’s efforts in the south, he ignored reports that Yemenis have been tortured in UAE-backed prisons there.
In a statement endorsing Pompeo’s certification, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the Saudis and UAE “are making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.”
The memorandum also includes a curious entry that the two Gulf coalition leaders are “complying with applicable U.S. laws governing the sale and transfer of arms, including the Arms Export Control Act, with rare exception.” It is unclear exactly what those exceptions to the law that restricts U.S. arms sales to rights violators are — though the coalition has supported a wide array of partner forces on the ground, including some that have reportedly gained access to American-manufactured weapons.
Pompeo noted that “recently civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices.” The memo also asserted that “investigations have not yielded accountability measures,” but explained that statement only by alluding to additional information contained in a classified supplement to his memo.
The secretary of state lauded the U.S.’s Gulf partners for what he called their restraint in UAE-led operations around Hodeidah. Pompeo said the coalition had incorporated a no-strike list and had received training on “air-to-ground targeting processes.” American no-strike lists were first shared — and flouted — under the Obama administration.
Both the Houthis and the coalition have been accused of acts in Yemen that may amount to war crimes. According to the United Nations, the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen since March 2015 have been caused by the Gulf coalition, whose members are shielded by its structure from being identified as responsible for specific strikes. Pompeo further told Congress that the administration assessed “that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”