Saudis Try To Sell Washington On Controversial Obama-Backed War In Yemen

Almost a year on, the Saudi-led military coalition cannot yet claim victory for Yemen's toppled government.
Saudi Arabian Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, seen here in 2014, addressed a Washington audience via Skype on Monday to allay U.S. concerns about the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabian Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, seen here in 2014, addressed a Washington audience via Skype on Monday to allay U.S. concerns about the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
FAYEZ NURELDINE via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- A top Saudi Arabian military official on Monday tried to win Washington support for the Saudi-led military campaign to restore Yemen's government, rejecting increasingly vocal criticism of the war's humanitarian toll and broad U.S. support for Saudi actions.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, emphasized the Saudi reasoning for intervening in Yemen, saying the country's internationally recognized government deserved support after a rebel group called the Houthis pushed the government out of the country's capital in 2014 and expanded their control well into 2015.

Asiri's briefing, delivered via Skype to a small audience at the Center for a New American Security, was the first time a coalition representative has answered questions about the U.S.-supported war at a Washington event.

"It is not in the interest of one of the countries in the region if Yemen becomes another Somalia or another Libya," Asiri said. "So we decided to go and to give help in a military manner to the government."

Already one of the poorest countries in the Muslim world, Yemen has suffered intensely because of the fighting between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition. The United Nations said in January that the country may face mass starvation, and the U.N. secretary general has asked Saudi weapons suppliers to stop selling arms to the kingdom because its bombing raids kill so many civilians.

Asiri placed the responsibility for Yemen's pain on the insurgency against the Saudi-friendly government. Even as it bombs the country, Saudi Arabia is extending humanitarian aid, he noted, adding that the kingdom believes the Yemeni people "deserve to live in peace and stability."

Asiri didn't indicate when the coalition might conclude the operation, saying the Saudis were waiting for U.N. negotiations between the Houthis and the government of Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Asiri blamed members of the U.N. Security Council for failing to help the process and the media for offering too little coverage of U.N. mediation efforts.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was part of a congressional effort last year to delay U.S. weapons transfers to the kingdom until the Saudis offered more clarity on Yemen, gave a speech late last month pointing out Saudi actions that had destabilized the Middle East. He called for ending all U.S. assistance for the Yemen campaign, which has killed at least 3,000 civilians.

The Obama administration has approved the sharing of U.S. targeting intelligence, aerial refueling capabilities and new weapons systems with Saudi Arabia since the kingdom and its Arab partners launched the war in March.

Asked about the increasing unpopularity of the war in Washington, Asiri said that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was about "more than weapons sales" and that the White House understood the Saudi focus on Yemen, given its long border with the kingdom.

"We need to defend ourselves," Asiri said. He noted that the Saudis on Monday used a U.S.-provided defense system to intercept a scud missile fired at a Saudi city from within Yemen.

The Saudis see Yemen a key arena for their regional competition with Iran. They and the U.S. both say Iran has supported the Houthis as a thorn in Saudi Arabia's side. Asiri mentioned Iranian misdeeds repeatedly during his comments.

But Iran's links to the Houthis -- whether they involve control or just occasional limited support -- remain opaque. HuffPost revealed last spring that Iran advised the Houthis not to take the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, a move President Barack Obama later cited as evidence of Tehran's rational nature.

Saudi Arabia believes the Houthis will eventually surrender the Yemen capital, Asiri said, and the coalition does not wish to fight within the crowded, populous city.

Asiri's talk failed to allay some concerns raised by his audience of foreign policy analysts and reporters.

Two experts asked about the Saudi plan for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemeni branch of the armed extremist group. The terror organization controls significant territory within Yemen and experts say it's getting stronger.

Asiri said the Houthis and their prime patron, former Yemeni president and one-time Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, are inseparable from al Qaeda. Both, he argued, are signs of the chaos in the "nongoverned space" of Yemen. The Saudis believe they are weakening AQAP by weakening the Houthis, he added.

David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, asked Asiri if even one of the airstrikes in the 11-month campaign have hit any al Qaeda or Islamic State target in Yemen. Asiri couldn't name an example. Instead, he said his government had helped a recent suspected U.S. drone strike on AQAP -- breaking the U.S. government's policy of not publicly discussing the long-running drone war in Yemen.

Asiri denied claims that Saudi Arabia has reduced its involvement in the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as a result of its focus on Yemen. He noted that the kingdom had launched almost 200 airstrikes against the militant group there and reiterated a recent Saudi claim that the kingdom is willing to send ground troops to Syria to tackle ISIS, a prospect experts have described as infeasible.

The last round of Yemen peace talks ended in December. The U.N. has not set a date for the next stage.

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