WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today discussed the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Yemen.
“With so many other pressing challenges in the Middle East, not just this crisis in Yemen, but also our military action against Syria over the weekend; I'm just going to echo what Senator Menendez said in the outset,” said Senator Coons. “That it is more important than ever that the administration formulate and deliver a comprehensive strategy to the Congress and the American people, so that we can better engage with, and understand, and judge what is the path forward in terms of confronting and restraining Iran's aggressive behavior; which I think is a central cause of this ongoing conflict in Yemen, and as is a critical driver of Bashar al- Assad's barbarism in Syria. And I will insist that we need to hear more from the President and his team represented here, by way of a comprehensive strategy in the near future.”
Full audio and video available here.
Senator Coons’ full Q&A is below:
Senator Coons: With so many other pressing challenges in the Middle East, not just this crisis in Yemen, but also our military action against Syria over the weekend, I'm just going to echo what Senator Menendez said in the outset: that it is more important than ever that the administration formulate and deliver a comprehensive strategy to the Congress and the American people, so that we can better engage with, and understand, and judge what is the path forward in terms of confronting and restraining Iran's aggressive behavior; which I think is a central cause of this ongoing conflict in Yemen, and as is a critical driver of Bashar al- Assad's barbarism in Syria. And I will insist that we need to hear more from the President and his team represented here, by way of a comprehensive strategy in the near future. But let’s today continue to drill down on some of the specifics in this particular conflict if we could. Humanitarian access, first Senator Young asked a number of questions. Admirably, he's been very engaged on the issue of humanitarian access through ports, let me just add if I could a question about the closure of Sana’a airport. Because of military strikes led by the Saudi coalition, Sana’a airport has largely been closed to humanitarian relief and assistance, and to those who might seek to leave for medical purposes. How can we address Saudi Arabia's legitimate security concerns around that airport, and its use for the importation of weapons, while at the same time making it possible for civilians trapped in Houthi controlled areas to get medical care, to get food, to get clean water? Ambassador Satterfield if you'd start us off.
Ambassador Satterfield: Senator you single out exactly the reasons why Sana’a airport should be fully opened for movements in and out. Not just for humanitarian so labeled purposes, the general purposes as well. How best to assure that the genuine concerns of Saudi Arabia are met? There are a variety of regimes that have been put successfully in place to (for lack of a better word) sterilize or assure that cargos and people moving in and out of the airport are what they ought to be, without significantly diminishing the ability of the airport to function. We and the United Nations have repeatedly proposed such regimes. Some have worked partially. The airport has a greater level of operation today than it did if we go back to early and mid- November, but more needs to be done. And we believe, the mechanisms are out there. The U.N. is willing to participate in them, and we believe that they can be made to work.
Senator Coons: Thank you for that answer, let me talk just a little bit more about water shortages as several of you have spoken to. Both the Houthis and Saudis have blocked deliveries of water to civilians and have destroyed water infrastructure, which has in are part contributed to water scarcity, to the world's greatest cholera outbreak. Do you believe access to, and control over water is one of the drivers over the conflict in Yemen? And, how does that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, and what can we best do to tackle the access to clean water challenges?
Ambassador Satterfield: Senator in Yemen control over water resources is not one of the primary drivers in the conflict. Yemen is blessed with a variety of water supplies not found elsewhere in the Middle East. The problem with water, and I'll defer to my colleague from IAD, is the elimination of reliable electricity supplies to purification of water treatments plants, appropriate sewage disposal. It's a very basic phenomenon, but it stems from restrictions on electricity delivery, which in turn are the product of some damage to transmittal lines. But more importantly, lack of consistent supplies of affordable fuel.
Senator Coons: Mr. Jenkins…
Deputy Assistant Administrator Jenkins: The ambassador nailed it on that one. Basically, when you see or hear in Yemen about fuel not getting to where it needs to go, that immediately correlates itself with people not being able to pump the water that they need, not being able to fuel the generators that keep the lights on in hospitals. And water is a critical, critical problem for the humanitarian situation.
Senator Coons: Let me ask, if I might, one last question. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, has been cited as one of the more lethal terrorist organizations in the world. Do you think AQAP is a greater threat to the United States now than it was at the beginning of the conflict back in September of 2015? Have we had any success in degrading their capabilities? And most importantly I think, from a security perspective, given the quote Senator Young just shared with us that food crises grow terrorists, what about our alignment, our strategy, our engagement might make us less secure today, as a result of the conduct of the last three years?
Assistant Secretary Karem: Senator as you know we had a relatively sizable presence in Yemen prior to the conflict focused with the legitimate government of Yemen in going after AQAP, because of the specific threat it poses to the homeland. That presence and our activities were significantly undermined by the collapse of the government and the outbreak of civil war in 2014 and 2015. We have made strides in reconstituting our efforts through our local partnerships, first with the legitimate government of Yemen as well as with other partner forces who were on the ground. But, AQAP remains a significant threat. They have benefitted from the civil war that has created open territory and safe areas for them. But as the Emirates in particular have made progress in helping the government of Yemen maintain control in certain areas, it has denied more area to AQAP. We nevertheless have continued to have to take a number of strikes against this very significant terrorist threat, and so it remains a challenge but we are making progress.
Senator Coons: Thank you all. Saying in conclusion, it's clearly both in our humanitarian interest, and in our national security interest, to reach a resolution to this conflict as soon as is possible. Thank you.