State Department spokesman Retired Adm. John Kirby spent a substantial amount of time tripping over his words at the last two department briefings when asked about Saudi Arabia’s weekend attack on a funeral home in Yemen, and the ever-growing civilian death toll in that war.
On Tuesday, Kirby was asked pointedly about the difference between the Saudi war in Yemen and the Russian and Syrian war in Aleppo. Kirby insisted there “are some differences” but then rattled off a series of similarities, even catching himself at times and conceding those similarities, like the Syrian government asking for Russian help being similar to Yemen’s “government-in-exile” asking for the Saudis to invade to prop them up.
Ultimately, he concluded that Saudi Arabia has a “pressing requirement for self-defense” in attacking neighboring Yemen, and that the Syrian government had no such requirement in kicking al-Qaeda out of the eastern half of one of their largest cities. He also insisted Saudi promises of investigations and Russian promises of investigations as different because he doesn’t think the Russians mean it.
On Wednesday, Kirby was again pressed on the question of Saudi bombings and US backing for the Saudi war, arguing that the Saudis’ efforts to not kill civilians would be “diminished” if the US wasn’t arming and heavily supporting the conflict.
This confused reporters, who asked him to elaborate, but Kirby would only conclude that “it’s important to remember that not every strike they take hits civilian targets.” Recent studies have suggested that somewhere in the realm of a third of Saudi airstrikes, however, have ended up hitting civilian targets, which isn’t a great ratio.
Kirby’s difficulty in squaring the putative differences between Yemen and Syria, along with his outright failure to make a serious effort to justify US backing for the Yemen War, likely mirrors the growing disquiet within the State Department, where a good number of their lawyers have been warning the US could find itself named a “co-belligerent” in the Saudi war and face legal liability for all the civilians the Saudis are killing. This makes every public statement potentially part of future legal proceedings, and is forcing officials to be very careful in choosing their words, or in Kirby’s case, in stumbling over them.