Groups worry as Trump weighs wider role in Yemen fight

Groups worry as Trump weighs wider role in Yemen fight
© Getty Images

Humanitarian groups are voicing concern after reports the Trump administration may step up support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

The coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country's civil war, but watchdog groups say the fight has taken a heavy civilian toll and worry the situation will get worse.

“If the U.S. is going to escalate military intervention in Yemen, it needs to make sure that it minimizes civilian casualties,” Sahr Muhammedally of the Center for Civilians in Conflict told The Hill.

Muhammedally said the administration should encourage Saudi Arabia to be take more precautions to avoid civilian casualties, such as coordinating with local communities.

ADVERTISEMENT

Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch told The Hill that escalating the U.S. role, including selling the Saudis more weapons, could make the administration complicit in civilian casualties. 

After allegations in October that the coalition struck a Yemeni funeral home and killed more than 150 people, then-President Obama halted a $390 million sale of precision-guided munitions, curbed intelligence sharing and withdrew some U.S. personnel. He allowed refueling of coalition aircraft and the sale of small arms.

But The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that President Trump is now providing greater intel and logistical support to the coalition and looking to resume arms sales.

In a March memo, Defense Secretary James Mattis requested the White House loosen Obama-era restrictions preventing military support to the coalition, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

Beckerle said the U.S. should not resume weapons sales and that halting those sales would give the administration leverage to influence Saudi policy in Yemen.

One factor driving the administration's changing policies is countering Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels.

Trump has taken a tougher tone with Iran than his predecessor.

The administration slapped new sanctions on Iran and told the country it was "on notice" in February after an Iranian missile test. Iran is also one of the six predominately Muslim nations covered by Trump's travel ban.

Generally, though, the United States' primary focus in Yemen is not the civil war but a separate offensive in cooperation with Gulf countries to defeat al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group's local affiliate.

That mission has also attracted controversy after a raid in January left one Navy SEAL dead as well as a number of civilian casualties.

But increasing support for the coalition's fight could give the U.S. a wider role in the civil war, which marked its two-year anniversary on Sunday.

“The USA and UK are fueling serious violations that have caused devastating civilian suffering through multibillion-dollar arms transfers to Saudi Arabia that vastly overshadow their humanitarian efforts,” said Amnesty International in a March 23 statement.

Mattis’s March memo called for “limited support” of coalition operations that include a planned offensive to retake Hodeida, a vital Red Sea port that has been damaged in the fighting with Houthi rebels.

Off the coast of Hodeida on March 16, a helicopter fired on a boat carrying Somali civilians and refugees, killing at least 32 people. Saudi Arabia denied responsibility and has ignored calls by Somalia to investigate.

Muhammedally said the Saudis do have a procedure for investigating allegations and have admitted to making mistakes in the past, but it’s not clear what they are doing to change tactics to avoid civilian casualties.

This story was updated at 4:00 p.m.