This is the scene of an airstrike in 2016 in Yemen, on a busy hospital in a small city called Abs. Nineteen people were killed and dozens were injured. The pilot missed clear warning signs and ignored safety measures, like a no-strike list of protected buildings. Found in the debris, the remains of a U.S.-made weapon. America isn’t officially involved here. The fight is between a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebel group. But it’s very much a U.S.-supported war. The fighter jets, the bombs, the training and intelligence — much of it is supplied to the Saudis by the U.S. It’s a brutal war. The Houthis have killed hundreds of Yemenis. The Saudi air campaign has been even more lethal. Over four years, coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians and bombed well over 100 medical facilities, a Times assessment found. “If U.S. fighter pilots were doing this directly with U.S. bombs, would there be a change in behavior?” “If we were hitting hospitals, over and over, like what we’re seeing? Absolutely, there would be a change.” Which begs the question: What obligation does the U.S. have when it sells weapons to foreign militaries? U.S. officials claim their ally is doing everything possible to protect civilians. But this is simply not true, according to Larry Lewis, a former State Department official, who saw firsthand how the Saudi coalition failed to protect civilians and how the U.S. chose to look the other way. “Yemen has exposed a fundamental problem in the way we provide arms and the way we support partners. So we need to change the way we do business.” Lewis spent years working with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to reduce civilian casualties. He wrote a book on protecting civilians that’s issued to every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. And in 2015, the Obama administration sent him to work with the Saudi coalition in Riyadh. “There were some fundamental problems with how some of the targeting was being done that really needed to be fixed.” During his time there, he reviewed the Abs hospital strike with an investigations team he helped the Saudi coalition to create. “What did you learn from reviewing that airstrike with the Saudis?” “You look at the level of destruction in the nearby buildings and go, the pilot got it way wrong.” Let’s take a look at what happened there. Coalition warplanes attacked a Houthi checkpoint a few miles north of Abs. Medics say that a car transported casualties to the Abs hospital from the strike. The Saudi coalition tracked the car, believing a Houthi leader was inside. For some reason, they didn’t strike it on the open road. Instead, they waited until the car pulled into the hospital. It parked by the emergency room and was hit without warning. Three major failings were evident in the Abs strike, Lewis says, and these were repeated throughout the Saudi-led air campaign. “Doctors Without Borders say that they provided the hospital coordinates to the Saudi coalition.” “That’s right.” “So why did they still hit it?” “That information didn’t get to the cockpit.” The Saudi coalition is often praised by the U.S. for creating a no-strike list, a map of protected sites like schools, refugee camps and hospitals. The list is used to vet targets when airstrikes are preplanned. But that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of strikes, which are on-the-fly bombings or so-called dynamic strikes. “What can be done to limit the number of dynamic strikes, or at least force them to check the no-strike list?” “Mhm. This is not rocket science. It’s not hard to make a requirement for pilots to call back to higher headquarters and say, check the no-strike list and tell me if this object is on the no-strike list, or if there’s something that’s close by. It would take a minute or two.” Another problem? Over and over, Lewis says, pilots seem to ignore large roof signs that identified hospitals, including the one in Abs. We can see six of them in this satellite image taken before the strike. “So the pilot could have seen this marking and recognized, hey, this is a protected facility.” On top of all this, a major issue is a lack of common sense among pilots and spotters on the ground. “You have a pilot that’s not really so experienced, and then you have a person, who’s not even a military person, agreeing on what they think is a valid target, and then engaging that target. So, it’s really fraught with peril.” In Abs, a teacher named Hamza Ahmed Absi saw that peril firsthand. He rushed to the hospital from a nearby school. Muhammad Darm was badly injured in the attack. He’s an X-ray technician, who was helping patients near the hospital’s entrance when the bomb exploded. Muhammad was lucky to survive. He recently returned to work in the hospital. Once a sanctuary in a time of war, he says it no longer feels safe. For years, officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations have said they’re working directly with the Saudis to stem civilian casualties. “I think every Yemeni that is killed — any innocent person is killed — it affects all of us. And there are many steps that are being taken, and have been taken, to try to minimize that.” “The training that we have given them, we know has paid off.” “We are co-located with them in their operation centers to help them develop the techniques and tactics that will allow them to conduct strikes while mitigating civilian casualties.” But one problem with U.S. oversight, Lewis says: The U.S. wasn’t tracking how the American weapons it sold were being used by a Saudi military with little experience in war. In 2018, three years into the conflict, the head of U.S. Central Command said as much. “Is CENTCOM able to tell whether U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used as part of that strike?” “Senator, I don’t believe we are.” Lewis says they did have access to that information. They just weren’t using it. “Every flight by the Saudi-led coalition where they were doing airstrikes, that pilot would then make a report that talked about what target was it, what kind of weapons did they use and just information about the strike. They would file it and then that would go to populate this Excel spreadsheet that had every single strike in the campaign.” “And the U.S. and U.K. had access to that database? “They did.” “So if the U.S. wanted to know if American bombs were bombing hospitals, they could have done so?” “Yes.” A year later, after reporters disclosed the database, General Votel changed his tune. “Today, we do have that. We do have a database that does have that information and we have the ability to see that.” Lewis says the database could be a tool to increase U.S. oversight in reviewing foreign weapons sales. A State Department official told us this kind of data could be incorporated into its monitoring, but vetting it can be onerous, and it may be of little use to policymakers. After a Saudi coalition airstrike on a funeral home killed over 150 people in late 2016, the Obama administration, having brokered $100 billion in weapons sales, now sought to distance the U.S. from the coalition. “And their response was, clearly, the Saudis aren’t learning.” It paused sales of precision weapons, and pulled the plug on Lewis’s advising mission. “The U.S. said this is up to the Saudis to do their thing and investigate themselves.” When President Trump took office, the U.S. doubled down on weapons sales. “So we make the best equipment in the world. There’s nobody even close. And Saudi Arabia’s buying a lot of this equipment.” In Yemen, things for civilians continue to get worse. In 2018, the rate of civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition soared, Lewis says, to almost 50 per week. And in Abs, history repeated itself. Yet another medical facility was attacked in June of that year. The airstrike destroyed a vital cholera treatment center built by Doctors Without Borders to handle the worst outbreak of the disease in modern history. The Saudi coalition tried to shift blame to Doctors Without Borders, saying its buildings weren’t marked. But again, satellite images from before the strike show large red crescents were visible, even from space. And Doctors Without Borders say they shared the center’s coordinates at least 12 times. The Saudis deny this. The U.S. sells weapons to over 100 countries, but in Yemen, the scale of the devastation has become the story. And for the people living there, it’s the new normal.
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