Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an end to the war in Yemen and Saudi airstrikes that have targeted civilians. That’s a great start, but if the U.S. is serious about ending the violence, we will need more than words from Washington.
In fitting remarks for a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday evening, Mattis called for an end to the war in Yemen, which erupted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring with various factions supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Telling the audience, “This has got to end, we’ve got to replace combat with compromise,” the defense secretary made clear that the the U.S. wanted negotiations between the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the U.S., and the Houthi rebels within a month.
On Tuesday, Pompeo also issued a statement that missiles and drone strikes by both sides must stop and that the Saudi-led coalition, repeatedly condemned for airstrikes against civilians, must cease operations in populated areas.
Those are welcome words from top U.S. leadership who just a month ago told Congress that despite criticism of coalition airstrikes, the Saudi-led attacks had made “every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.”
At the time, Mattis and Pompeo based their assessment on information provided not by U.S. led efforts to figure out what was going on, or international organizations working there, but by the Saudis themselves. Unsurprisingly, the Saudi investigators, looking into their own actions, found that they had done nothing wrong.
That conclusion, taken as fact by Washington, contrasted with evidence and reports from organizations like the United Nations showing that civilians had been targeted by coalition airstrikes.
The reported casualties from the airstrikes alone, never mind the ongoing famine that threatens millions as a result of the escalating conflict, were responsible for killing or injuring 16,000 civilians based on U.N. numbers, although a recent report notes that the total is likely much higher. For their part, the Saudis said that when civilian deaths did occur they were “collateral damage” — accidental deaths in the course of a military operation.
That has put the United States, which supplies bombs, assists in refueling coalition aircraft, and offers other logistical support, in a tough spot. They lack information on how their weapons are being used and have thus far seemed to rely on Saudi assertions, from the same government that killed Jamal Khashoggi, lied about it, and then admitted to having staged a cover-up.
Perhaps it's the public outcry over that indecent, or the realization that just maybe the Saudis shouldn’t be taken at their word when it comes to killings, but Mattis and Pompeo are right to call out the war in Yemen and Saudi airstrikes.
Washington’s opposition must comprise more than a few nice lines for the Peace Institute. It’s long past time for the U.S. to reconsider its support for the Saudi coalition and its ongoing attacks in Yemen. The U.S. has a prominent role to play. Washington’s call for peace are meaningless without the U.S. cutting they very supplies and assistance that support the deadly airstrikes and further the conflict.