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Obama aide: how we got it wrong in Yemen

  • James Reinl
  • 14 Feb 2019

Former US president Barack Obama's key advisor on the Middle East Robert Malley told TRT World that Obama tried to "find a middle ground" of assisting the Saudi-led coalition militarily and simultaneously pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran.

Rob Malley, former US negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current CEO at the International Crisis Group, poses in his office May 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. ( Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images )

NEW YORK – The Obama administration gave Saudi Arabia too much backing to prosecute its war in Yemen and should have scaled back military support much earlier, a White House aide from that period told TRT World.

Comments from Robert Malley, then US President Barack Obama’s point man on the Middle East, come at a key moment in US politics, with lawmakers trying to end US military assistance for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

“The Obama administration didn’t cover itself in glory when it comes to Yemen. To a certain extent, and despite our best intentions, we covered ourselves in shame,” Malley, now president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, a think tank, told TRT World.

“This was not a case where the goal was to stop our enemies from doing what we didn’t want them to do. This was a case where we were working with partners whose actions led to the devastation that we see.”

According to Malley, Obama faced a tough choice back in March 2015, when ally Saudi Arabia launched its military operation in Yemen to push back the gains of the Houthi rebels, which it viewed as a proxy for arch-foe Iran.

At that time, Riyadh felt “betrayed” by Obama’s bid to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, he added.

Obama tried “to find a middle ground” of not formally joining Riyadh’s anti-Houthi coalition, but by providing “aerial refuelling, intelligence sharing and weapons assistance” so the Saudis could “protect their own territory”, said Malley.

But the plan was not realistic as the support was “fungible” said Malley, who served as Obama’s assistant and senior advisor on the anti-Daesh (ISIS) campaign, as well as the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region.

By refuelling coalition jets, the Saudis were better able to carry out bombing raids deep into Houthi territory that increasingly hit not just military targets but also the towns and villages of impoverished Yemenis.

Reports of strikes on civilians came in thick and fast. By August 2015, the rights watchdog Amnesty International had documented “hundreds of cases” of men, women and children killed in “unlawful airstrikes”, often using US-made bombs.

Indiscriminate hits started soon after Saudi entered the conflict.

On 14 April 2015, a coalition strike on Al Akma, near Taiz, killed ten civilians, including seven children and two women, in a village of poor Yemenis who lived in dwellings of corrugated iron and cardboard, Amnesty said.  

According to Amnesty and other observers, all sides have committed atrocities in the conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 6,800 civilians, left 15.9 million others facing severe hunger and wrecked Yemen’s economy.

Riyadh says it does its best to minimise civilian deaths and alleviate humanitarian suffering in Yemen. The Saudi mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to TRT World’s interview request.  

In those early days of the war, Malley described tense conversations with Saudi counterparts and repeated US efforts to embed military advisors with the coalition and draw up lists of places not to target because of the risk of civilian carnage.

“We tried to draw a line, but it pretty quickly became an artificial one,” Malley told TRT World.

“We could have decided sooner to simply tell the coalition that we could not continue to abide by this and so we were walking away. That didn't mean intervening military to stop them, but at least not being complicit.”

Malley’s comments come as lawmakers are pressuring the Trump administration to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition, with Democrats and Republicans pushing the so-called “war powers resolution” in Congress.

The move is designed to send a strong message to Riyadh both about the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and to condemn the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.    

US President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the effort. The administration said the resolution was inappropriate because US forces had provided aircraft refuelling and other support in the Yemen conflict, not combat troops.

But, according to Malley, the US should have scaled back support to its key Middle East ally years ago.

“This is a case of failure, and lessons have to be learned about our relationship with our allies, what to do when they drag us into conflicts or when we become complicit in their actions, about the extent of our own capacity to minimise civilian casualties,” Malley told TRT World.

“We also have to learn lessons about how to better know what our partners are doing with our weapons and what to do when they do things we can neither abide nor control.”

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