One American’s Failed Quest to Protect Civilians in Yemen

“If there is a chance that I can help, then I’m going to swing. I’ll swing for the fences. I may get air, but I’d rather try and fail than to not have tried.”

A man looks at the shell of a bus that had been destroyed in a Saudi air strike in Yemen.
A man inspects the wreckage of a Saudi air strike on a crowded bus in Yemen. (Hani Mohammed / AP)

Last week, Saudi jets bombed a bus packed with schoolchildren in northern Yemen. The attack, which occurred during a field trip to mark the end of summer classes, killed at least 40 students aged 6 to 11, and left dozens more wounded, as footage from the scene later showed. After more than three years of war against the Houthi rebels and thousands of casualties, the attack was one of the conflict’s most senseless and tragic. Over that time, the Saudi-led coalition, which consists primarily of Saudi and Emirati forces, has had the chance to adopt targeting practices that could help it avoid harming civilians. The bus strike, and Riyadh’s response, do not suggest this is a high priority.

Since the campaign against the Houthis began in March 2015, the United States has provided intelligence and logistical support to the Riyadh-based coalition, in addition to billions in arms sales. U.S. tankers have also off-loaded millions of pounds of fuel from tankers to coalition jets (predominantly to UAE aircraft, according to official data). Today, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department can say whether it is tracking civilian harm in the country even as it provides this crucial military backing.

[What are U.S. forces doing in Yemen in the first place?]

On Sunday, Saudi officials labeled the bus bombing “a legitimate military action.” A Pentagon spokesperson has said that U.S. officials are pressing the Saudis “to do a thorough and complete investigation and release the results to the public.” The task of investigating the attack will fall to a coalition body known as the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), made up of officials from coalition member states. In addition to investigating incidents of concern, the group is meant to provide recommendations on avoiding harm to coalition-member militaries. However, the JIAT has no clear statutory authority—that is to say, it can’t make policy, and its recommendations don’t appear to have any legal binding force. At best, according to human-rights groups, the team has lacked consistency; at worst, they have said, it has failed to account for some of the conflict’s deadliest air strikes.

Still, when the JIAT was formed in 2016, with the assistance of Larry Lewis, then the State Department’s senior adviser on civilian harm, it was something of a novel entity in the Gulf, at least in its announced intentions. Lewis was perhaps the coalition’s sole American interlocutor focused explicitly on protecting civilians endangered by the Yemen campaign. As he saw it, there was an imbalance between the flow of weapons and support provided by Washington and its lack of oversight of a conflict it had accelerated. This is the mismatch that Lewis, with the State Department’s backing, said he tried to fix—initially with some success.

Last year, Lewis was pushed out of the State Department by the Trump administration during a larger purging of staff at Foggy Bottom. The State Department declined to comment on the circumstances of his exit, and did not say whether he had been replaced. Today, there is little to indicate catastrophes like last week’s will become less likely.

Among those who work on civilian protection, Lewis is well known. As an analyst at the federally funded research group CNA embedded with the military from 2004 to 2011, he worked closely with U.S. officials in Iraq, and in Afghanistan he co-authored the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, part of a series of efforts that helped reduce deaths caused by international forces. In one key analysis, Lewis examined hundreds of civilian-casualty incidents in Afghanistan and found that half had resulted from civilians being misidentified as hostile forces. (Some of the seven major studies he has conducted since 2009 on civilian harm remain classified.) He worried that the lessons of Afghanistan would be lost in future wars, especially like the one in Yemen, where the extent of U.S. involvement and responsibility in the Saudi–Emirati war against the Houthis was unclear. (The United States operates a separate counterterror campaign in Yemen, often in collaboration with the Emiratis.)

Meanwhile, the Gulf states believed Iran was backing the Houthis, and feared what America’s support for the nuclear deal meant for them. “The Saudi government was very nervous about the deal, and so the implicit policy imperative of the day was to reassure them,” Rose Jackson, who served as chief of staff at the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from 2013 to 2016, told me. “Simultaneously, they had launched this deeply problematic air campaign, civilians were dying, and a humanitarian crisis was brewing.”

“Larry was initially sent to advise the Saudi government in a good-faith effort to figure out how serious they were about improving their processes and protecting civilians,” Jackson said. “We weren’t sending just anyone. We were sending the guy who had helped our own government establish a system for limiting civilian harm in Afghanistan, with prior military experience, under the auspices of the bureau focused on human-rights and civilian-protection issues … But broadly speaking, if we tried this arrangement out as a test, it failed.”

By the time Lewis settled into his job at the State Department in August 2015, coalition pilots had already hit a staggering number of civilian targets in Yemen, including markets, gas stations, a teachers’ union meeting, and various residential areas. By the end of the month, the United Nations, drawing on cases it could reasonably verify, conservatively reported more than 2,100 civilian deaths in Yemen since March—the majority resulting from coalition strikes. At least some of the civilian deaths likely stemmed from the coalition’s inexperience in waging such a massive air war—the U.S.-led anti-ISIS air campaign has itself killed thousands. There was also a sense that the coalition members didn’t seem to care very much about protecting civilians. Washington’s “targeting assistance” didn’t seem to be doing much to help reduce civilian harm.

In September 2015, the coalition bombed a wedding party in southwestern Yemen, killing dozens. One guest later told me that survivors could only find “small, small pieces” of their loved ones. (There are countless stories like this today.) Lewis’s superiors sent him to the air-operations center in Riyadh, where he met with more than two dozen officers and several generals. The air war was “ugly,” as he put it, but he wasn’t sure if the Saudis had reflected on the toll, or taken steps to staunch the bloodshed. “I did different presentations, talking about how civilian casualties can happen, including some U.S. examples [from U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, for instance], and ways to learn, and adapt and change,” Lewis told me. “One person raised their hand and said, ‘So you’re telling us we are talking about accidents—you are talking about times when you didn’t mean to but something happened?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, we’ve definitely done those.’” Lewis realized that the coalition had “never really admitted to anyone in the United States that these things were happening,” he recalled. “Once we had that sort of ‘Ah’ moment, they started telling about incidents. The U.S. advisers’ jaws dropped at how forthright they were.”

Lewis wanted to teach principles like operational patience—waiting for a target to move out of a populated area, for instance—and how to gauge the risk to civilians in strikes on buildings and residential compounds. He stressed the importance of avoiding targets on no-strike lists, including ones provided by Americans, and specifically during “dynamic strikes”—those that are not preplanned, during which coordination might be more difficult. He left after a week; when he returned in December, Saudi personnel showed him list of targets they claimed to have not hit—encouraging stuff, but still only anecdotal signs. Lewis, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, needed data.

To test what was really happening on the ground, Lewis, in his capacity as a State Department adviser, improvised a system to track the campaign’s levels of civilian harm—essentially, a database populated with information from open-source reporting as well as operational data he was fed informally by parts of the U.S. military, including the types of strikes, their circumstances, and the targets hit. If an incident was blamed on the coalition, he tried to match it with official coalition flight records he had managed to obtain through U.S. military sources with access to this data. While the U.S. joint-planning cell in Saudi Arabia was supportive of the effort, Lewis told me, he still had to build it from scratch. No one in the military was studying civilian harm from the Saudi-led coalition campaign. Civilian protection was a blind spot.

[More than a thousand days of war in Yemen]

By early 2016, Lewis said he began seeing limited results of his work. The number of incidents marked in Lewis’s database rose less sharply. After identifying the targeting of residential compounds as especially harmful to civilians—pilots couldn’t know who was inside—it appeared the coalition had listened to an extent, and the number of compounds targeted as a portion of all strikes decreased (more vehicles were being hit, however, he said). “Civilian casualties clearly didn’t go to zero, but you could also clearly see an operational effect,” Lewis said. “The kind of targets that they were hitting changed.”

Ultimately, Lewis hoped to have the Saudis and the coalition implement their own tracking system, fed with coalition operational data. Work went ahead with the JIAT, which to date has completed more than 75 investigations, with mixed results. According to a forthcoming analysis by Human Rights Watch, the vast majority of what has been released publicly about these investigations absolve the coalition of legal fault, and obscure which coalition member holds responsibility. Headlines on Saudi government websites like “JIAT Clears Arab Coalition For Many Bombings” are common.

Lewis saw his work as the first step in what should have been serious oversight and civilian-protection efforts by the United States, running in parallel to the raft of military assistance. Existing tools like the Leahy law, which is meant to prohibit assistance to foreign-security forces implicated in human-rights violations, and weapon-diversion monitoring, he said, were insufficient in the context of the Yemen war. “If you are providing resources, weapons, training, refueling—that’s operational support and intelligence—those things basically increase our legal and our moral risk. How do you manage that risk?”

Much like he did with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Lewis wanted to change the system from within. I asked him if he felt that raised ethical concerns in a nondemocratic country like Saudi Arabia, and whether he was worried his work might be seen as abetting the war—something his State Department colleagues told me was a concern as the civilian death toll worsened. “We are talking about the lives of innocent civilians,” he said. “So if there is a chance that I can help, then I’m going to swing. I’ll swing for the fences. I may get air, but I’d rather try and fail than to not have tried.”

In April 2016, a nationwide cease-fire took effect. Civilian casualties from coalition strikes trailed off, and the United States withdrew most of its Saudi-based personnel coordinating with the coalition. But then in August, the cease-fire fell apart—and quickly. Coalition targeting appeared to grow more reckless. A Doctors Without Borders–supported hospital was bombed, along with a school and a bridge on the road from Hodeidah to the capital of Sanaa. The bridge was on a U.S. no-strike list, yet was targeted several times. Former administration officials told me it wasn’t the first or last time that happened.

According to Lewis, over time his work made some in the Obama administration uncomfortable. In certain ways, it undermined the pretense guiding Washington’s support for the coalition—that it consisted merely of servicing and recommendations, and targeting “assistance” but not “selection”—and that the United States bore little responsibility when things went south. Later, his work came under scrutiny as the administration distanced itself from the coalition following deadlier attacks. “Up to a certain level people [in Saudi Arabia] were really eager to improve, and they appreciated the technical approach,” a former senior State Department official familiar with Lewis’s work told me. “But then I think we all concluded that there was a political level above them that didn’t care about improving … It was really a contested experiment, and it was much more risky after it was clear that they weren’t going to listen to us. There was the risk that we’d be used essentially.”

Lewis says he could have used more support from the military and other parts of government. “It was a lonely feeling doing this,” he said. “It was frustrating because I felt like we had learned so much in Afghanistan about how this stuff worked.”

In October, coalition jets carried out a “double tap” air strike in Sanaa on a funeral hall filled with mourners. Minutes after an initial strike, a second took place—a strike that a UN panel later found violated international law. More than 130 were killed. The White House soon announced a review of its support for the coalition.

Lewis saw the outcry over the strike as a possible opening to return to Saudi Arabia to continue advising. But frustrated with the Saudis and leery of any perception that it was intimately involved in targeting, the Obama administration blocked Lewis from returning in his more direct military-advisory role, he said. He still held out hope that working with the JIAT could lead to institutional changes. That hasn’t happened, he told me. His last trip was two months before Donald Trump’s election. A State Department spokesperson declined to say whether the monitoring he had attempted for Yemen continues in any form today.

One of Lewis’s Saudi contacts, a high-level official in the government, tried to secure funding for him to return and continue advising the Saudis. That appeared to go nowhere. In July, Lewis was in discussions with the Open Society Foundations to support his work with the Saudis to improve their protection of civilian policies and practices. Lewis told his contact about the possible funding, and the contact ran the new offer by the head of the JIAT. On August 3, Lewis received a response via his contact: He was no longer welcome. Less than a week later, coalition jets bombed the bus packed with schoolchildren.

After last week’s strike, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for an independent inquiry into the massacre. The United States has stopped short of that, insisting that the Saudis simply devote more resources and focus to JIAT. Lewis said the problems in Yemen, at least from Washington’s perspective, are rooted in the military’s failure to prioritize civilian protection and extend that to its engagement with partner forces.

In an email, the Pentagon spokesperson Rebecca Rebarich wrote that the United States “is not a party to the Yemeni civil war and is not investigating strikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.” The United States continues to publicly place the conflict at arm’s length, a stance perhaps best exemplified by the U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel’s admission that the U.S. military does not track coalition jets after they are refueled. This week, a senior U.S. official was more blunt, telling reporters: “What difference does that make? We are providing the refueling … selling them munitions … We are not denying that.” The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think largely I am frustrated with the U.S.,” Lewis said. “I feel like there is no real home for this [civilian protection] in the Pentagon, and that’s part of the problem. There is no one who owns this, and if no one owns it, then there is no proponents, so things sort of die. Ultimately we are going to have this same phenomenon.”

The defense bill signed into law this week included a provision obliging the Pentagon to create a senior civilian position responsible for establishing standards for counting civilian deaths, as well as developing and disseminating best practices to reduce the likelihood of civilian harm. But that section of the bill, along with one that could theoretically lead to a halt in refueling, were both challenged explicitly in a signing statement issued by the president on Tuesday. The Trump administration has also decided to ignore an Obama-era executive order that Lewis helped draft, which provides policy commitments to help protect civilians in U.S. operations. The order also includes a commitment to work with partners concerning civilian casualties, a promise that Lewis says the Trump administration has failed to meet in Yemen.

“We could do much more to promote civilian protection, or alternately we could choose to do less and show our concerns by withdrawing support,” he said. “Our current approach does neither. The world wonders if the U.S. cares about civilians in Yemen. I wonder if we care enough to act.”