Washington: Two top officials from President Donald Trump’s administration sought to persuade lawmakers Wednesday to maintain America’s increasingly contentious support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, arguing that pulling back would worsen the brutal conflict.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared before the Senate ahead of a planned vote on reducing military assistance to Riyadh, which has been blamed for high civilian death tolls in Yemen strikes and is facing global ire over the death of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The suffering in Yemen grieves me, but if the United States of America was not involved in Yemen, it would be a hell of a lot worse,” Pompeo told lawmakers in the closed-door hearing.
“What would happen if the US withdrew from the Yemen effort? The war wouldn’t end.”
The Yemen conflict has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with the country now on the brink of famine.
The UN estimates as many as 10,000 people have died, most of them civilians, since the Saudi-led coalition launched military operations in 2015 in support of embattled Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.
US military support for the coalition includes intelligence sharing and training pilots to avoid strikes that risk civilian casualties.
The Pentagon had also been conducting air-to-air refueling for coalition aircraft, but this month said it was stopping doing so.
Still, a series of high-profile coalition strikes has killed scores of civilians, many of them children, and now some US politicians are balking at America’s role in the war.
“The Senate has a choice: end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen or remain complicit in the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said on Twitter.
– Peace talks –
Trump’s emphatic support of Riyadh has rankled lawmakers including from his own Republican partly, particularly following Khashoggi’s murder.
Saudi Arabia has acknowledged that the Washington Post columnist, a US resident, was killed inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October but has blamed his death on a “rogue” operation.
Trump last week called Saudi Arabia a “steadfast partner” and said it was unclear whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was aware of the plan to kill Khashoggi.
Trump has also cast doubt on the CIA’s reported conclusion that Prince Mohammed was behind the killing.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Mattis told Pentagon reporters he had reviewed all the intelligence in the case but had seen nothing directly tying MBS to the killing.
“There is no smoking gun,” Mattis said, adding he still believes those responsible should be punished.
“We have not changed that accountability for the murder is our expectation of everyone involved in the murder.”
Peace talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen have been set for early December in Sweden, between Huthi rebels and the UN-recognized government, Mattis said last week, and officials are worried a move to cut support ahead of the summit is poorly timed.
Senators were set to vote later Wednesday on a bipartisan proposal to force the US to end its backing of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Other lawmakers want to impose sanctions beyond those that Washington enacted on 17 Saudis allegedly involved in the killing.
Recent events have left administration officials publicly grappling with global realpolitik, saying Saudi Arabia’s role in countering Iran is too important for the US to turn its back.
“We are seldom free to work with unblemished partners,” Mattis said in prepared remarks.
“Long-standing relationships guide but do not blind us. Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security, and to our interest in Mideast stability.”
– ‘Necessary strategic partner’ –
The Pentagon chief added the US must try to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder to account while also recognizing Saudi Arabia as a “necessary strategic partner.”
He pointed to the US military’s training of partner pilots as key in reducing deaths.
“While tragedies occur in war, we assess restraint and improved tactical judgment by Arab coalition pilots has reduced the risk of civilian casualties,” he said.
Pompeo meanwhile warned lawmakers that a US drawdown would lead to a stronger Iran, while reinvigorating both the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Try defending that outcome back home,” he said.
On Twitter, Pompeo announced the US would be spending an additional $131 million in food assistance and again took a swipe at Iran.
“Iran’s regime has no interest in easing Yemeni suffering; the mullahs don’t even care for ordinary Iranians. Saudi Arabia has invested billions to relieve suffering in #Yemen. Iran has invested zero,” he tweeted.
Also on Twitter, Democratic Senator Ed Markey said Pompeo is wrong to say Saudi Arabia is worth keeping as a partner, given its human rights record.
“Leadership isn’t about an amoral pursuit of material benefit & profit. It’s about applying our values to friends & foes alike, even when – especially when – it’s hard,” he wrote.