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Lawmakers Press Biden to Track U.S. Aid Tied to Civilian Harm in Yemen

A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday urged the Biden administration to do more to ensure that U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates does not contribute to civilian harm in Yemen, following an internal watchdog report that said the United States has failed to assess how its aid is tied to such casualties.

The report, released publicly in June, after The New York Times disclosed its existence, found that while the Pentagon oversaw $54.6 billion of military aid to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from 2015 to 2021, top security officials failed to collect sufficient data and evidence on civilian casualties or monitor the use of American-made weapons.

In a pair of letters to the State Department and Pentagon, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, called the administration’s inaction to determine the extent to which U.S. military support has led to civilian harm in Yemen “an unacceptable failure.”

“We urge you to review whether or not the Saudi and Emirati governments are taking the necessary precautions to prevent harm to civilians in Yemen,” the senators wrote. “If either are found to be in violation, we urge State to halt all arms sales to either country until it can verify they are taking steps to protect civilians.”

Civilian casualties have become something of a hallmark of the war in Yemen. For nearly a decade, the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthi rebels for control of Yemen has carried out deadly strikes using American-made combat jets and munitions supplied with the approval of the U.S. government.

In the early days of the war, Saudi jets dropped American-made bombs on a funeral in Yemen’s capital, killing more than 140 people, and a Yemeni school bus, killing 44 boys on a field trip. More than 150,000 people have been killed in the war, including nearly 15,000 civilians, according to an estimate by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

On Jan. 21, an airstrike on a prison run by the Houthis killed at least 70 people and injured dozens of others, according to Houthi officials and international aid groups. But deaths have dropped since the warring groups agreed in April to a tentative truce that the United Nations helped negotiate. The truce was extended for two months in early August. U.S. officials said Mr. Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia was partly aimed at trying to bring the war to a permanent end.

Why U.S. Weapons Sold to the Saudis Are Hitting Hospitals in Yemen

This is the scene of an airstrike in 2016 in Yemen, on a busy hospital in a small city called Abs. Nineteen people were killed and dozens were injured. The pilot missed clear warning signs and ignored safety measures, like a no-strike list of protected buildings. Found in the debris, the remains of a U.S.-made weapon. America isn’t officially involved here. The fight is between a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebel group. But it’s very much a U.S.-supported war. The fighter jets, the bombs, the training and intelligence — much of it is supplied to the Saudis by the U.S. It’s a brutal war. The Houthis have killed hundreds of Yemenis. The Saudi air campaign has been even more lethal. Over four years, coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians and bombed well over 100 medical facilities, a Times assessment found. “If U.S. fighter pilots were doing this directly with U.S. bombs, would there be a change in behavior?” “If we were hitting hospitals, over and over, like what we’re seeing? Absolutely, there would be a change.” Which begs the question: What obligation does the U.S. have when it sells weapons to foreign militaries? U.S. officials claim their ally is doing everything possible to protect civilians. But this is simply not true, according to Larry Lewis, a former State Department official, who saw firsthand how the Saudi coalition failed to protect civilians and how the U.S. chose to look the other way. “Yemen has exposed a fundamental problem in the way we provide arms and the way we support partners. So we need to change the way we do business.” Lewis spent years working with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to reduce civilian casualties. He wrote a book on protecting civilians that’s issued to every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. And in 2015, the Obama administration sent him to work with the Saudi coalition in Riyadh. “There were some fundamental problems with how some of the targeting was being done that really needed to be fixed.” During his time there, he reviewed the Abs hospital strike with an investigations team he helped the Saudi coalition to create. “What did you learn from reviewing that airstrike with the Saudis?” “You look at the level of destruction in the nearby buildings and go, the pilot got it way wrong.” Let’s take a look at what happened there. Coalition warplanes attacked a Houthi checkpoint a few miles north of Abs. Medics say that a car transported casualties to the Abs hospital from the strike. The Saudi coalition tracked the car, believing a Houthi leader was inside. For some reason, they didn’t strike it on the open road. Instead, they waited until the car pulled into the hospital. It parked by the emergency room and was hit without warning. Three major failings were evident in the Abs strike, Lewis says, and these were repeated throughout the Saudi-led air campaign. “Doctors Without Borders say that they provided the hospital coordinates to the Saudi coalition.” “That’s right.” “So why did they still hit it?” “That information didn’t get to the cockpit.” The Saudi coalition is often praised by the U.S. for creating a no-strike list, a map of protected sites like schools, refugee camps and hospitals. The list is used to vet targets when airstrikes are preplanned. But that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of strikes, which are on-the-fly bombings or so-called dynamic strikes. “What can be done to limit the number of dynamic strikes, or at least force them to check the no-strike list?” “Mhm. This is not rocket science. It’s not hard to make a requirement for pilots to call back to higher headquarters and say, check the no-strike list and tell me if this object is on the no-strike list, or if there’s something that’s close by. It would take a minute or two.” Another problem? Over and over, Lewis says, pilots seem to ignore large roof signs that identified hospitals, including the one in Abs. We can see six of them in this satellite image taken before the strike. “So the pilot could have seen this marking and recognized, hey, this is a protected facility.” On top of all this, a major issue is a lack of common sense among pilots and spotters on the ground. “You have a pilot that’s not really so experienced, and then you have a person, who’s not even a military person, agreeing on what they think is a valid target, and then engaging that target. So, it’s really fraught with peril.” In Abs, a teacher named Hamza Ahmed Absi saw that peril firsthand. He rushed to the hospital from a nearby school. Muhammad Darm was badly injured in the attack. He’s an X-ray technician, who was helping patients near the hospital’s entrance when the bomb exploded. Muhammad was lucky to survive. He recently returned to work in the hospital. Once a sanctuary in a time of war, he says it no longer feels safe. For years, officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations have said they’re working directly with the Saudis to stem civilian casualties. “I think every Yemeni that is killed — any innocent person is killed — it affects all of us. And there are many steps that are being taken, and have been taken, to try to minimize that.” “The training that we have given them, we know has paid off.” “We are co-located with them in their operation centers to help them develop the techniques and tactics that will allow them to conduct strikes while mitigating civilian casualties.” But one problem with U.S. oversight, Lewis says: The U.S. wasn’t tracking how the American weapons it sold were being used by a Saudi military with little experience in war. In 2018, three years into the conflict, the head of U.S. Central Command said as much. “Is CENTCOM able to tell whether U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used as part of that strike?” “Senator, I don’t believe we are.” Lewis says they did have access to that information. They just weren’t using it. “Every flight by the Saudi-led coalition where they were doing airstrikes, that pilot would then make a report that talked about what target was it, what kind of weapons did they use and just information about the strike. They would file it and then that would go to populate this Excel spreadsheet that had every single strike in the campaign.” “And the U.S. and U.K. had access to that database? “They did.” “So if the U.S. wanted to know if American bombs were bombing hospitals, they could have done so?” “Yes.” A year later, after reporters disclosed the database, General Votel changed his tune. “Today, we do have that. We do have a database that does have that information and we have the ability to see that.” Lewis says the database could be a tool to increase U.S. oversight in reviewing foreign weapons sales. A State Department official told us this kind of data could be incorporated into its monitoring, but vetting it can be onerous, and it may be of little use to policymakers. After a Saudi coalition airstrike on a funeral home killed over 150 people in late 2016, the Obama administration, having brokered $100 billion in weapons sales, now sought to distance the U.S. from the coalition. “And their response was, clearly, the Saudis aren’t learning.” It paused sales of precision weapons, and pulled the plug on Lewis’s advising mission. “The U.S. said this is up to the Saudis to do their thing and investigate themselves.” When President Trump took office, the U.S. doubled down on weapons sales. “So we make the best equipment in the world. There’s nobody even close. And Saudi Arabia’s buying a lot of this equipment.” In Yemen, things for civilians continue to get worse. In 2018, the rate of civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition soared, Lewis says, to almost 50 per week. And in Abs, history repeated itself. Yet another medical facility was attacked in June of that year. The airstrike destroyed a vital cholera treatment center built by Doctors Without Borders to handle the worst outbreak of the disease in modern history. The Saudi coalition tried to shift blame to Doctors Without Borders, saying its buildings weren’t marked. But again, satellite images from before the strike show large red crescents were visible, even from space. And Doctors Without Borders say they shared the center’s coordinates at least 12 times. The Saudis deny this. The U.S. sells weapons to over 100 countries, but in Yemen, the scale of the devastation has become the story. And for the people living there, it’s the new normal.

The internal report also found that the Pentagon revealed that it does not track how countries have used at least $319 million in logistical support to the Saudis and Emiratis, “meaning civilian harm could be the direct result of aid provided by the United States without our knowledge.”

 

Lt. Col. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that the Defense Department “remains deeply concerned by all reports of civilian casualties, to include those in Yemen, and will take all available measures to avoid such tragedies.”

He added that the Pentagon “has long since ended all U.S. support for offensive military operations in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition” and that American officials “consistently emphasize the necessity to uphold the law of armed conflict and prevent civilian harm.”

A spokesman for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In February 2021, Mr. Biden announced the United States would end support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen. However, he said the United States would continue providing “defensive” aid to Yemen, without saying how his administration would ensure the Saudis did not use that for offensive operations. Saudi officials have long said their actions are to defend against Houthi and Iranian aggression.

The United States continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and help maintain the country’s American-made fighter jets and other military equipment.

Bipartisan outrage about the billions of dollars’ worth of munitions the United States provides to Saudi Arabia intensified on Capitol Hill during the Trump administration, after the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist. U.S. intelligence officials concluded he was murdered by a Saudi hit team directed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and lawmakers in both parties moved to block the weapons sales, though President Donald J. Trump circumvented Congress and went through with them anyway.

But the bipartisan anger waned as time went on, particularly after Mr. Biden took office and pledged to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including some arms sales.

President Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia in July.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The letter on Wednesday suggested that the concerns on Capitol Hill have resurfaced, as Mr. Biden seeks to rebuild ties with the kingdom and Prince Mohammed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which affected oil prices, and amid mounting fears about Iran’s nuclear program.

Concerns about how the U.S. government attempts to minimize civilian casualties have mounted in Congress amid growing evidence of recurring episodes over multiple administrations in which civilian bystanders have been killed during drone strikes.

Separate investigations, relying on the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties obtained by The Times, showed that the air campaign against the Islamic State was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and scant accountability.

“The United States should not contribute in any way to the suffering of millions of innocent Yemenis caught in a devastating Saudi-led war,” Ms. Warren said. “The U.S. government has a moral and legal obligation to ensure its actions are not exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis, and there is strong bipartisan support for thorough investigations into possible U.S. complicity to civilian harm in Yemen.”

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