Senior Administration Officials on Yemen

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
October 14, 2016

MODERATOR: Sure, thanks. And thanks, everyone, for joining us on a beautiful autumn afternoon. I appreciate it. We thought it would be useful given some of the events happening over the past week with regard to Yemen to do this backgrounder and to try to provide an overall context to our ongoing efforts to reach a peaceful political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, and just to talk about and answer your questions about those efforts. So we’re joined today by two senior Administration officials.

Now, this is an on-background call, and as I said they should be referred to as senior Administration officials, but I will give you their names and titles first. The first – we are joined by Senior Administration Official Number One, who is [Senior Administration Official One], and then second – our second senior Administration official is [Senior Administration Official Two]. And again, they are to be referred to henceforth as Senior Administration Official Number One and Number Two.

So given the time constraints today I want to get started, and so I’ll hand the mike over to our Senior Administration Number One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator.] Good afternoon. I think many of you are aware that two nights ago the United States launched several attacks on radar sites on the coast of Yemen. This was in response to provocations on the waterways around Bab-el-Mandeb, the Red Sea, around the coast of Yemen targeting several of our vessels. Previous to that, I think as you all know, an Emirati ship had been targeted, and there was also a maritime commercial incident that had taken place over the course of the last – the previous week.

So in response to these – these aggressive acts, we made a decision – the President did – to support a very specific and targeted strike on these missile – sorry, these radar sites that we believe have played a role in the – in targeting these vessels of ours.

The key points that I think you should be aware of about these strikes that we’ve tried to really strongly emphasize, these were taken in self-defense. So underscoring the point that I made that we were responding to provocations by the Houthis’ militia toward our ships, and so we responded.

Secondly, we were very clear that this was not meant to indicate support for coalition operations either in Yemen writ large or on the Red Sea. And we also made clear in public statements that we were not intending to be brought into the war in any – in any fashion.

As you know, these particular strikes that we took sort of bring up to the present more than a year of activity by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen which has had a number of unfortunate consequences which we have talked about publicly: one, our discomfiture with the way that the war has dragged out, the loss of life; and number two, particularly the civilian casualties. And so that’s been sort of an underpinning, I think, of this conflict.

Throughout this period, we have made very clear to the Saudis, to the other side, to the Houthis, that no diplomatic – sorry, no military solution is possible in this conflict. We have urged consistently and very aggressively all sides to move toward a political negotiation that would create space for the legitimate government to return to Yemen, currently mostly living in Saudi Arabia. And up to the present, that remains a goal.

So John Kerry and others have worked quite tirelessly to push a ceasefire. We had, as you know, fledgling attempts over the summer in Kuwait to bring the sides together. Some progress made but not enough to reach any sort of permanent deal. Then those talks dissipated and we fell back – the parties fell back on military – military activity.

And so up to the present day, our focus remains getting everybody back to a negotiation that would end the conflict ultimately, but that it would at least lead to an immediate ceasefire. We’ve talked about a 72-hour ceasefire as one that creates at least a little bit of space for there to be a letting up of military activity and an opportunity for the sides to get back together.

Throughout this time, we’ve also supported the UN envoy – Cheikh – Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, his efforts. He’s just come back from a tour of the – a tour with the various parties in the region. He remains very much engaged and we are fully supporting his efforts to move the parties toward a solution.

In the midst of all this, a number of American detainees have been taken by the Houthis. We have talked very specifically about the need for – regardless of what’s happening on the military and the political side – the need for these American detainees to be released immediately. And so our efforts have also very much taken stock of their safety and welfare, and we want to make sure that whatever we’re doing helps facilitate their immediate release as well.

So let me just pause there with that opening statement, I’ll see if my colleague wants to add anything, but then we’re happy to go to questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, I think you covered it very well, so happy to respond to questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Operator, we’re ready to take the first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder to place yourselves in queue, you may press * followed by 1. Once again, for your questions, you may you may start by pressing * 1. And our first question will come from Barbara Usher with BBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just a few questions, actually. First of all, have you got any doubt that those missiles were launched by the Houthis? And if so, do you have any idea what the reason was at this time? And could you give us any information about which types of support the U.S. might consider withholding to the Saudi coalition if it would be withheld? I know Ned Price said recently it had already been significantly reduced, so I don’t know where things stand. And then, sorry, thirdly, have you made an assessment about the consequences of the bombing – of the funeral for the peace process, because a number of very important political and military personalities that supported the peace process were part of that – were killed in that attack. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, thanks, Barbara. On the first one, we have no doubt that the Houthis launched those missiles at our ships. We’re very – we’re certain of that, and thus, we feel that the response was appropriate in both scope and immediacy. And so, you saw, as I think, a very, very quick response from the United States on that.

And as to their intentions, I – that I cannot really say. I mean, I’ve talked to – both my colleague and I are in regular contact with our embassies and with others who address and analyze these issues. It’s not entirely clear, to be honest. I mean, there could be different elements within the Houthis who are pursuing different – slightly different objectives. In terms of the support, as I think you’re aware, we have reduced over time our support to the Saudi coalition. This is in part due to the fact that we have been uncomfortable with the prosecution of the war in terms of the civilian casualties. We’ve worked with the Saudis and the coalition partners to try and help them reduce their civilian casualties. The strike on the funeral was really, really hard to swallow. I mean, we thought that that was particularly egregious and we’ve been in discussions with the Saudis and others, but what their intentions were or not is not really the issue. It’s more that it happened. You point out in the third part of your question that a number of important figures who are part of the reconciliation process were killed, and so that is unfortunate. It’s hard to replace those people. There are hard-liners on all sides of this conflict and so those from the different parties who are willing to forge more of a middle ground and work for compromise are going to be sorely missed. So that was an unfortunate byproduct of this strike, which just from a humanitarian point of view we thought was extremely unfortunate, and thus, you saw our strong response.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, and I just chime in to say – to agree with what just said. I think – to pick up on the last piece, we just thought there was absolutely no justification for the strike. It sort of pales next to anything else that had been done before, and as a result, there was a consensus that we needed to look at the full scope of the assistance that we provide to the coalition that impacts the war, and so that’s what we have underway.

And in terms of the first question – I agree with the first speaker that we don’t have any doubt that the Houthis fired these missiles.

MODERATOR: Great, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That comes from Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. I’m sorry it’s a bit noisy. My question is: All the stories say they were fired at Houthi radar sites, but you don’t know if it’s Houthi rebels radar, do you (inaudible)? Aren’t these Iranian furnished? Just trying to clear that up.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Margaret, I’m not sure if I got all of that, but I think your question was – you said that we responded against Houthi radar sites and do the Houthis really have radar sites?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: They do. They do. And that’s – they may have belonged at some other time to the Yemeni Government, but they unquestionably do have radar sites. And as I mentioned at the top, these particular sites, we believe, were used in targeting of our vessels, so they were a very appropriate target. I mean, the Houthis also have armaments that come to them from outside the country. They also have stockpiles that were left over from the days of President Saleh who of course is a combatant also in this conflict.

OPERATOR: Thank you, our next question that will come from Jay Solomon with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I’m just trying to understand how much – is there any sense that these – either the radars or the missiles are from Iran? Because in the past, Secretary Kerry and Spokesman Kirby were pretty clear that they thought missile systems were coming in from Iran, but I can’t tell if that’s still the case or if there’s any certainty one the ones used in the latest attack. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We do believe that the Houthis get (inaudible) Iran. I can’t speak to whether these particular – the particular equipment or hardware that was used in these strikes bore any origin to Iran, but in general, that is a problem. You’re certainly right to point that out.

OPERATOR: All right, thank you.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: That comes from Matt Rosenberg with The New York Times. Please go ahead. Mr. Rosenberg, your line is open. Please check your mute key.

QUESTION: Hi. I just have a question – there was some uncertainty about whether it was the Houthis themselves who you think fired the missiles or whether it was Saleh forces who are allied with them. Is there any clarity on that? Because we’re still trying to figure that one out.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I wouldn’t – I don’t know if we’re 100 percent sure, but I think we have great confidence that the Houthi – the Houthis were unquestionably involved in the effort. Whether specific individuals were wearing which uniform – I don’t think we know that, but we have enough certainty to feel that the response that we took was the right one to go back to the Houthis in terms of their targeting of our ships.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I think we’re pretty comfortable with the fact that it was Houthi-done.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Andrew Hanna with Politico. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. My question is: Does the American military response in Yemen undermine efforts at crafting a final ceasefire? Because the Houthis could potentially use this as a way to paint Americans as heavily supporting coalition efforts.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, they could. They could manipulate this in all kinds of different ways or use it. We don’t think so, and that’s why we were quick to emphasize that this was limited, that we’re not getting in the war, we’re not getting involved, and that we had very specific targets in mind. And we did underscore our public messages with private messages to various partners and actors in the region just to really highlight the fact that we were serious in terms of responding when provoked, but also that we were talking about this as a very limited and very particular, very focused response. So it’s very much our intention, and the way that we’re moving on this diplomatically is to continue to focus on our efforts to push a ceasefire.

We don’t think that what we did was incompatible with that. We did feel strongly that there was a provocation to which the United States needed to respond. These were our vessels that were targeted, but we also have a responsibility in terms of maritime shipping. It’s a very, very heavily used waterway, with some many thousands of ships that traverse this area on a yearly basis involving many countries, so it’s a vital waterway. But in this case we responded because we ourselves were provoked.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, and I’d just say, look, obviously, like anything else in a conflict, people are going to try to paint it a certain way that sort of is – facilitates their political advantage. We have been sort of unswerving in our – both what we did and its precision and also in our statements publicly and privately that these were limited self-defense strikes that were conducted to protect our people, our ships, and our freedom of navigation. And I – it may sound like a talking point and it probably doesn’t get repeated in Arabic as often as it should, but it is not the case that we are entering the war. We were not joining the coalition. This is – this was about us and protecting ourselves and the maritime concerns.

MODERATOR: We have time I think for just one or two more questions. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: That will come from Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. I’m just wondering two things. One is: How much of a threat were these strikes on the U.S. ships? I mean, I guess one of them splashed into the sea and the other one – the U.S. performed sort of defensive measures. So I mean, are these missiles seen as a serious threat?

And then secondly, what was the result? I mean, do the Houthis and their allies still have radar capability? I mean, you struck these three radar sites. Has that totally eradicated their capability, or do they still have the capability to launch such attacks? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thank you. I would say that we took the threat seriously in that it may not have been the first time that our ships had been targeted, but given the fact that an Emirati vessel the week before had been damaged in a Houthi attack, it struck us that there – this was – this – all of this combined represents an uptick in Houthi aggression on the maritime front. And given, as I say – as I said earlier, the volume of shipping and the presence of our own ships which are in that area, we did regard it as a threat to the point where a firm response was necessary.

They have other capabilities we didn’t disable. We destroyed these sites but we did not disable their entire capability, and nor was it the intention to do that. Again, we were looking at destroying those things that had targeted us.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And I would just add that when it comes to our ships, obviously our sailors are quite capable in terms of defending their selves, but they aren’t the only U.S. ship that passes through the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb. And so we have to be cognizant not just of our own ships’ ability to defend themselves or these ships to defend themselves, but also other U.S. ships.

And in terms of what my colleague said, exactly right. This was meant to respond to the precise threat that we had seen and send a message about what else could happen if there was continued threats to our freedom of navigation.

MODERATOR: Last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you give us, in as much granular detail as possible, precisely what kinds of assistance the United States provides to the Saudi-led coalition at present? And can you – if I heard right, Senior Official Number Two, I think, said that you’re reviewing systems. Does that mean that refueling is not on the table, is not one of the things that you’re reviewing? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I’ll start and then my colleague can jump in. I won’t get into a lot of detail about that assistance, but it’s intelligence and logistics primarily. And as noted earlier, it’s quite a bit reduced from, say, a year ago. So the level of support has gone down both in terms of the type and the personnel who would be assisting the Saudis. So as my colleague noted, that – those couple of baskets of things are all part of the review.

I will stress though that the United States is committed to the defense of the kingdom’s territorial integrity. So when it comes to the defense of Saudi Arabia’s border, responding to potentially Houthi provocations, et cetera, we’re firmly committed to Saudi Arabia’s defense on that score.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I – just to respond to the precise question put to me, I think I was trying to say that it – that we’re looking at all of the assistance and that – that impacts the war. So I can’t recall if I said – I’m sure that transcript will show whether I said “systems” or not, but my intent was just to cover the variety of things. And I think it’s sort of widely talked about that there are – there is a very small remnant of the support that we have in their operations center, and there’s the refueling and there are a couple of other things that my colleague referred to. So we’re looking at all of it.

MODERATOR: Thank you to our two speakers today and thanks to everyone for taking time out on a busyFriday afternoon to join us for this backgrounder on Yemen. Appreciate it and I hope everyone has a good weekend. Thanks.