WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is moving to distance itself from the mounting civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, while simultaneously providing targeting assistance to a Saudi Arabian-led coalition that has been conducting airstrikes over Yemen for the past six months.
United Nations officials say the coalition is responsible for the majority of the country's civilian deaths, which recently surpassed 2,300.
Last Saturday, airstrikes targeting Taiz, a city about 170 miles south of the capital, killed over 130 people attending a wedding. Yemen’s International Red Crescent Society reported that two of its volunteers, Qaed Faisal, 28, and Omar Fareh, 31, were killed by the shelling in a neighboring area on the same day.
Riyadh’s bombing campaign began in March, as Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country under assault from a Shiite Houthi insurgency. The U.S., eager to prevent the impoverished country from falling under control of al Qaeda fighters there, has backed the Saudi Arabian effort to restore Hadi’s rule.
But human rights groups accused the Saudi coalition of conducting indiscriminate airstrikes and unnecessarily endangering the civilian population. The International Red Crescent Society has already lost eight staff members and volunteers from the shelling.
White House officials said they were “shocked and saddened” by last week’s wave of civilian deaths, but said they were not responsible. “The United States has no role in targeting decisions made by the Coalition in Yemen,” said White House spokesman Ned Price in a statement on Friday night. “Nevertheless, we have consistently reinforced to members of the Coalition the imperative of precise targeting,” he added.
Friday’s statement seemed to contradict earlier news reports, where U.S. Central Command officials said they provide “targeting assistance” to the Saudi-led coalition. When asked about the discrepancy, a senior administration official told The Huffington Post, "There is a clear distinction between logistical and intelligence support, which we have provided, and taking part in targeting decisions, which we do not do.” The official noted that the support the U.S. provides to the coalition is intended to increase accuracy of airstrikes conducted by its allies and minimize civilian deaths.
A recent Congressional Research Service report said the U.S. sold $90 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2014, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs and armored vehicles. The report noted that the U.S. has supplied the Saudis with American-made weaponry for its military intervention in Yemen and has shared intelligence to support Riyadh’s targeting decisions.
The White House’s effort to distance itself from the most recent round of civilian deaths in Yemen comes two days after Saudi Arabia successfully resisted a Dutch effort at the U.N. Human Rights Council -- a body now led by Riyadh -- to send an independent human rights team into Yemen to investigate human rights violations committed by all parties during the civil war.
Instead, the Saudis offered a resolution that puts the U.N. in a supporting role in an inquiry headed by Hadi, the exiled Yemeni president -- who is a party to the conflict.
While the U.S. supported the initial Dutch resolution, they made no public effort to block the Saudi government from killing the independent investigation. Keith Harper, the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, told The Associated Press that while he supported the Dutch initiative, he preferred a consensus outcome, meaning one that had the backing of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia was named head of a panel on the Human Rights Council last month, prompting observers to question the propriety of giving the country such a position while its government commits flagrant human rights abuses, both in its military intervention in Yemen and by beheading activists at home. When asked if the U.S. was troubled by the move, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, “We would welcome it. We’re close allies.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Saudi Arabia leads the U.N.'s Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia's ambassador was elected, rather, to an influential panel within the council, according to the Independent.