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U.N. Criticizes Saudi-Backed Operations In Yemen, But U.S. Stays Silent


Saudi Arabia is coming under increasing international criticism for a military campaign that has devastated Yemen. And critics say the U.S., a key Saudi ally, has been too silent on the matter. Those critics say that's giving the Saudis a lot leeway in their fight against rebels in Yemen. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports the U.S. is walking a fine line.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The UN's top humanitarian official says he was shocked by what he saw on a recent visit to Yemen. Four out of five Yemenis rely on aid, Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council this week. And more than 1,000 children have been killed. He described the recent airstrikes and shelling of a key port as a violation of humanitarian law.

STEPHEN O'BRIEN: I'm extremely concerned that the damage to the port of Hodeidah could have a severe impact on the entire country and would deepen humanitarian needs making more people food insecure, leaving them without access to water or medicines and which could also mean the spread of disease.

KELEMEN: From the State Department, spokesman John Kirby called on all sides to abide by humanitarian laws, but stopped short of directly criticizing the Saudi's for the way they have waged the air and ground campaign against rebels who ousted the government from the capital.

JOHN KIRBY: It's important to remember that Saudi Arabia was asked to assist by the government of Yemen, the government that we recognize. We continue to urge all parties in Yemen, all parties, to allow for the unimpeded entry and delivery of essential relief items to the civilian population nationwide.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been helping the Saudis with logistical support and intelligence while quietly advising them to find a political solution. But the Atlantic Council's Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Yemen, says the U.S. has been too quiet.

NABEEL KHOURY: The Obama administration is speaking too softly to the Saudis and not caring any stick at all which means the Saudis have no real motive to stop what they're doing right now, especially that the U.S. continues to assist them in it.

KELEMEN: The Saudis view the conflict as a proxy war with Iran since the rebels are led by the Houthis, a shiia group with links to Iran. And that puts the U.S. in a difficult bind as it tries to ease concerns in the region about its nuclear deal with Iran. At the same time, the U.S. has national security interests in Yemen where terrorist groups are taking advantage of the chaos. That's according to an analyst in the region, April Longley Alley, of the International Crisis Group.

APRIL LONGLEY ALLEY: ...Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and then also a nascent ISIS group has been able to gain territory and gain ground.

KELEMEN: Reached by phone in Dubai, she says it's in everyone's interest to bring Yemen back from the brink.

ALLEY: There is an opening for that.

KELEMEN: Saudi gains in the south of the country where the Houthis are deeply unpopular, she says, opens the window for a political compromise. To take advantage of this opening, the former U.S. diplomat, Nabeel Khoury, is calling for, in his words, a bold diplomatic initiative.

KHOURY: It's going to take some pressure by the U.S. on the Saudis to stop at a certain point and negotiate from a position of strength with the Houthis. At the end of the day, the Houthis cannot be eliminated. They are a part of Yemen. And they need to be given a role in a future, hopefully democratic, government of Yemen.

KELEMEN: He says the UN is right to be raising the alarm bells about the devastation in what was already one of the poorest nations in the Arab world. And Khoury believes the U.S. needs to be speaking out more forcefully, too. Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.