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Yemen war’s civilian casualties trigger questions on Capitol Hill about U.S. support role

War in Yemen has killed at least 10,000 people and endangered millions more. Now questions are being raised on Capitol Hill and inside the State Department about U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, and whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to limit or prevent civilian killings. Nick Schifrin talks with Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today on Capitol Hill, officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community held a rare briefing for top staff there. The topic, what is U.S. policy in Yemen and what role is American support playing in the ongoing civil war there?

    Nick Schifrin has that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    War in Yemen has killed at least 10,000 people and endangered millions more. There are rampant shortages of food and medicine.

    The U.S. is supporting a Saudi-led coalition that is fighting largely from the air Houthi rebels who are aligned with Iran. They control the capital, Sanaa. But a battle is ongoing for the major port city of Hodeidah held by the Houthis.

    And there are questions on Capitol Hill and inside the State Department about U.S. support. Congressional officials tell me there's bipartisan frustration with what they call a lack of accountability and transparency.

    At the center of the controversy are those air raids, whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to limit or prevent civilian killings.

    One man who would know, Larry Lewis, research director at the Center for Naval Analyses. He used to lead the Defense Department's efforts to prevent civilian casualties, and was the State Department's senior adviser on civilian protection.

    Larry Lewis, you created the team in Saudi Arabia that investigates civilian casualties. What was your mission? And were the Saudis interested in your helping them?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, I was asked to go over to Saudi Arabia and work with the Saudi coalition and try to repeat the kind of work that I have done with the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, work with them to identify patterns and causal factors for civilian casualties, and help them to reduce them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And were they interested?

  • Larry Lewis:

    They were definitely interested.

    So they actually embraced the kinds of measures that I was trying to take place. And, in fact, as we were measuring operational outcomes for the first few months, we actually saw measurable reductions in civilian casualties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If the Saudi-led coalition seemed interested when you were there a few years ago in reducing civilian casualties, why are we still getting so many incidents of civilian casualties?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So I was able to work with them for a time. And they were interested. And they were — they were starting to make some changes to their operations.

    But those were changes not to the institution, but to the individuals within the operational chain of command. So what happened was, there was a cease-fire, and then, basically, I went away, we stopped — they stopped fighting. About six months later, the fighting started happening again.

    They actually reached out and asked for me to come and continue my work. At that time, the State Department and the White House were really concerned about reputational risk. And so they decided no more advising to help them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that was back in 2016-2017, right?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Yes, 2016.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    2016.

    Let's fast-forward to 2018. Now we have got certification from the Department of State, Department of Defense that the Saudi-led coalition is doing its best to prevent civilian casualties.

    Let me read Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement, "The governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments."

    That certification, does that make sense, do you think?

  • Larry Lewis:

    No, it doesn't. It doesn't fit the facts.

    So if you look at the demonstrable actions that they talk about in the accompanying memo, there are four actions. Three of them are over 2 years old. So, they don't seem to have been effective, because we have seen these problems continue.

    The actions that they're talking about in the memo are not the kinds of things that actually help reduce civilian casualties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mean the actions that Saudi has to take are actually not those that the State Department says they're already taking?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Correct.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of those problems was this horrific attack that killed schoolchildren on a bus. And the Saudi-led coalition did come out and make a statement.

    And let's listen to that statement. This is from Colonel Turki Al-Maliki.

  • Turki Al-Maliki (through translator):

    Now we fully accept the findings. We launched the airstrike at a wrong time and made mistakes in following crossfire rules. We will hold all those responsible for the mistakes accountable, in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    "We fully accept the findings. We will hold all of those responsible for mistakes."

    Not so bad, right?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, it's good that they admitted a mistake.

    But, unfortunately, the details of the explanation don't look right. So they talked about problems in the timing of the airstrike. But the common understanding of what happened was, the problem was actually the target selection. I mean, they struck a school bus with kids.

    And the fundamental problem is, if they are not getting the details right of what went wrong, it's unlikely that they will be able to put solutions in place to get better.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The main debate, it seems to me, is, some are saying, look, stop, don't help them at all. That absolves, some at least, of but responsibility.

    And there's another part of the debate, which is, look, we have to help them get better. The U.S. is selling weapons to this coalition.

    Is that the debate that we need to be having right now?

  • Larry Lewis:

    We're kind of at a fork in the road. You can either lessen support or — or continue support, but also help mitigate the negative effects through — through advising, through more focused attention to the problems that we're seeing, and helping them to fix them.

    Right now, the certification decision does neither. And, as a result, what we're doing is, we're letting this humanitarian disaster just continue. We are — we are letting our partner Saudi Arabia suffer in terms of legitimacy and also in terms of this makes it harder to resolve this ongoing conflict.

    And, of course, we also have reputational hits on the U.S. as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Larry Lewis, with the Center for Naval Analyses, thank you very much.

  • Larry Lewis:

    It's good to be here.

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