Pentagon To Senate: We Can't Know If U.S. Fuel Helps Saudi Arabia Kill Civilians In Yemen

A private Defense Department document shared with HuffPost absolves the U.S. of responsibility for airstrikes the U.N. says have killed thousands.
A protest sign outside a funeral hall in Sanaa, Yemen, that was hit by the Saudi-led coalition that receives U.S. support.
A protest sign outside a funeral hall in Sanaa, Yemen, that was hit by the Saudi-led coalition that receives U.S. support.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration is doubling down on its claim that it cannot know whether U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen enables the bombing of civilians, according to a Pentagon document sent to select Senate offices last week and shared with HuffPost.

The Defense Department gave two reasons for not having that information. It said it does not know whether the Saudi and United Arab Emirates planes that receive American aerial refueling are headed for bombing runs or reconnaissance missions, and it cannot investigate the impact of Saudi-UAE airstrikes since Yemen is a conflict zone.

But in the same document, the Pentagon maintains that it believes the Saudi-led coalition has become better at preventing civilian casualties ― offering no evidence of how the U.S. can know that.

The two-pager represents a previously unreported part of the Pentagon effort to solidify opposition to a Senate resolution that aims to end U.S. assistance to the coalition because Congress never authorized it when then-President Barack Obama initiated the aid in 2015.

A vote on the measure, sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), is expected later this week.

The Pentagon document, sent on March 15, fleshes out testimony that Gen. Joseph Votel, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, gave on March 13 to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In sometimes heated exchanges with several lawmakers, Votel said the U.S. should continue its support for the coalition even if it cannot tell whether American fuel or bombs are used in airstrikes that kill civilians.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked if the U.S. was maintaining “some level of control” over the coalition’s actions.

“The influence that we derive with them is by working with them,” Votel said, adding that he believes the Saudis are adopting American-style procedures to limit civilian casualties.

“It’s better for us to stay engaged with them and continue to influence this,” he said.

King retorted: “You said for us. How about for the people of Yemen?”

U.S. support for the coalition is the best way for the U.S. to look out for Yemenis, Votel responded.

Already the poorest country in the Persian Gulf, Yemen has suffered as a years-long fight has been waged between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed rebels with their own track record of targeting civilians and shooting missiles at civilian centers in Saudi Arabia.

“Let’s be super clear: the Saudi military has made no serious effort to limit civilian casualties in Yemen.”

- Obama-era foreign aid official Jeremy Konyndyk

The coalition has caused two-thirds of the thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen since 2015, according to the United Nations. And a U.N. report in January said the Saudis’ mechanism for investigating airstrikes repeatedly missed incidents U.N. experts verified. Meanwhile, American defense contractors are seeking approval to sell more bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On Sunday, after the Wall Street Journal published a report from inside the Saudi war room, Obama-era foreign aid official Jeremy Konyndyk tweeted, “Let’s be super clear: the Saudi military has made no serious effort to limit civilian casualties in Yemen.”

The likely Senate vote on the American role in the war coincides with a Washington visit by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman ― one of President Donald Trump’s favorite world leaders, and the architect of the Yemen campaign in his role as Saudi defense minister.

Trump and the prince are to meet on Tuesday. In a call previewing the session with reporters on Monday afternoon, two senior administration officials said Yemen would be discussed, but stressed the need to thwart Iranian intervention there.

The officials did not mention any major shift in U.S. policy, calling the American support for the Saudi-UAE coalition “very modest” and noting U.S. and Saudi humanitarian assistance for victims of the war.

The importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has become a prominent part of the Trump administration’s case for continuing to aid the coalition.

“Saudi Arabia is a strong partner in the Middle East and provides support to U.S. counterterrorism operations against ISIS in Syria and against [Al Qaeda] and ISIS in Yemen,” the document provided to HuffPost reads. It warns that pulling American assistance in Yemen could result in the Saudis doing less to target terror groups.

Peace groups slam the Pentagon’s narrative. In a response to Defense Department document, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War and the Yemen Peace Project say the administration is trying to weaken congressional oversight.

They also say that public American pressure on the Saudi-led coalition has had a greater impact on alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen than behind-the-scene efforts by U.S. officials. And the groups note that the Senate resolution does not prevent the U.S. from continuing to help defend the Saudis and other partners from attacks emanating from within Yemen.

“Continuing unconditional U.S. military support does nothing to support the push for a negotiated resolution [in Yemen], instead endorsing more stalemated military operations,” the groups argue. “Ending essential U.S. military support will change the coalition’s cost-benefit analysis of continuing this intervention indefinitely.”

This story has been updated with comment from administration officials.

Read the Defense Department document below:

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