WASHINGTON ― A U.S.-aligned government stands accused of subjecting hundreds of civilians in the Middle East’s poorest country to forced detention in feces-smeared conditions, torture that includes being tied to a spit and roasted by flames, and airstrikes that have killed thousands at schools, hospitals and markets ― all while hindering aid deliveries as over 5 million people near starvation and an unprecedented cholera epidemic infects scores more daily.
Saudi Arabia has been publicly recognized as responsible for the crisis in Yemen because of its two-and-a-half year military campaign there against militants tied to its regional rival Iran. But its chief ally in that effort, the fellow U.S. partner the United Arab Emirates, has long avoided shame or accountability for its role in what U.S. officials describe as hundreds of likely violations of international humanitarian law and the creation of a security vacuum benefiting Al-Qaeda, the self-described Islamic State and other militant groups.
Now, the tide may be turning.
On Thursday, military expert William Hartung of the Center for International Policy released the first comprehensive report on the many ways in which the UAE helps drive Yemen’s suffering. The assessment is designed to fill a gap in the growing debate about the wisdom of U.S. policy choices in the country.
“The UAE’s role in the Yemen war has not received the attention it deserves,” Hartung said. ”They’re so dogged about controlling their image as the good Gulf state.”
Both the Obama and Trump administrations authorized two separate but intertwined U.S. missions in Yemen.
One is a small, constantly changing presence of American aircraft, including drones, and special operations forces, which targets militants linked to international terror networks and often work with the UAE, like during a botched raid soon after President Trump’s inauguration.
The other is a U.S. support mission for the UAE-Saudi coalition primarily fighting Iran-allied Houthi fighters, which provides aerial refueling for bomber planes, and intelligence, including to defend Saudi territory from cross-border attacks. In the Trump era, officials have authorized far more U.S. counter-terror strikes in Yemen and mooted expanding support to the UAE-Saudi coalition despite its alleged war crimes.
Hartung’s report ties the UAE to many of the most controversial aspects of the coalition’s track record since it first entered Yemen in March 2015 on the invitation of the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government. It highlights American culpability in equipping and permitting the UAE to act as it has.
He notes, for instance, that the UAE is training and commanding at least five Yemeni brigades that no longer report to the country’s government, damaging the chances of long-term stability. It is also contributing U.S.-armed ships to a coalition blockade of Yemen that international watchdogs accuse of keeping aid from a desperate civilian population and preventing the delivery of U.S.-purchased cranes intended to help unload relief material at an essential Yemeni port.
The report also notes how inextricably linked the UAE is to the vicious bombing campaign that’s made the coalition notorious. Since 2009, the country has spent more than $1 billion on buying the kinds of American-made bombs it is using in Yemen, Hartung writes, and its air force is the primary recipient of American aerial refueling.
The report’s findings complicate the narrative of the war that’s become popular in Washington, even among the war’s critics: that the UAE is doing the right thing, in targeting Al-Qaeda and other militants, and that the missteps of the aerial campaign are the fault of Saudi Arabia.
Human rights advocates like Kate Kizer of the Yemen Peace Project say the UAE deserves its share of the blame because it is known to be running flights over Yemen with American help and weaponry and the coalition has provided no way to know whether the bombs killing civilians are dropped by Saudi or Emirati planes.
The U.S. tried to distance itself from the Saudi-UAE coalition under President Barack Obama, at one point placing a hold on some weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia. But it always maintained ties, and Hartung noted that U.S. arms sales to the UAE since the war began suggest a clear pattern of trying to help the U.S. partner in its controversial Yemen operations.
“I would say there has been a sharp uptick in U.S. offers of weapons relevant to the Yemen war since it started,” Hartung wrote in an email to HuffPost, citing four major U.S.-UAE deals involving bombs or missiles since May 2015. “What we don’t know for sure ― the Pentagon and the UAE won’t say ― is how many of these have been delivered so far. But there is certainly an intent to bulk up the UAE’s ability to inflict harm, and the kinds of weapons offered are tailored to the kind of war they are fighting in Yemen.”
His report comes as some members of Congress and the human rights community continue to reckon with major allegations of torture by UAE forces and UAE-backed militias, made in June in separate reports from the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch. The investigations raised two major questions: Were U.S. officials aware of or even involved in human rights abuses by their partners; and is the UAE faithfully abiding by international and U.S. law on the treatment of detainees?
Writing before those reports came out, legal experts Ryan Goodman and Alex Moorehead suggested that evidence of UAE-directed detainee abuse would put the U.S. government and specific officials in legal jeopardy.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who oversee U.S. military operations as the chair and ranking member respectively of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis after the reports came out and asked for an immediate review.
The Pentagon sees no merit in the allegations and Mattis has responded to the senators, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told HuffPost in a Thursday email.
“Before any correspondence between [the Defense Department] and Congress on this matter, we initiated an initial inquiry of the operations and activities in the [Associated Press] report, in particular the suggestions that US personnel had tolerated or condoned detainee abuse. [The Defense Department] does not and will not tolerate the abuse of detainees,” he wrote. “We have received no credible allegations that would substantiate the allegations in the AP report.”
He did not respond to a follow-up question about the separate Human Rights Watch report, which said the UAE runs at least two secret detention facilities, moves detainees out of Yemen and subjects its prisoners to heavy beatings and electric shocks.
Even if the concern that Americans were present while rights abuses were taking place has been put to rest, U.S. officials remain worried about illegal torture and other abuses in various UAE operations around Yemen. Those fears are difficult to assuage because the U.S. lacks the diplomatic or military presence in the country to conduct the kinds of investigations into its partner that it could do in a context like Iraq or Afghanistan.
And the fact that Mattis’s response on the matter remains classified months later means that the U.S. remains publicly linked to those accusations and suspicions. Last month, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups asked the Pentagon, CIA and FBI to make public at least some part of any reviews they have conducted into the UAE abuse allegations. On Friday, a Human Rights Watch official told HuffPost the group had received no response.
“It’s kind of outrageous that they haven’t announced anything,” Hartung said. He recommends the U.S. immediately cease arms sales, refueling and other military cooperation with the UAE pending investigations of its alleged abuses, and ideally until the Saudi-UAE coalition agrees to jump-start the stalled peace process with the pro-Iran Houthi rebels who control Yemen’s capital. U.N. Human Rights Council members, including Saudi Arabia, agreed on Friday to establish their own independent inquiry into abuses by all sides.
“As it is now, the U.S. is complicit in what many independent groups think are war crimes,” Hartung added. “Not only those are unacceptable, but it’s counterproductive to any notion of fighting terrorism or reining in Iran.”