US spokesperson struggles with questions about the difference between bombings in Syria and Yemen

US State Department official asked repeatedly about why the US supports Saudi-led air strikes which have killed civilians in Sanaa, but has cut off talks with Russia over continued shelling of Syrian rebels in Aleppo

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The Independent Online

A US government spokesperson has struggled to answer questions put to him on why the US condemns Russian bombing in Syria, and supports Saudi-led bombing in Yemen, both of which have killed thousands of civilians.

During a media briefing in Washington DC on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby was asked repeatedly about whether Saudi coalition bombing of Houthi rebels in Sanaa - facilitated by US arms sales to the Gulf state - deliberately targets civilian infrastructure.

On Saturday, an air strike in the Yemeni capital killed 140 people at a funeral hall, in one of the worst single incidents of violence in the 18-month-old civil war between the exiled Yemeni government and Houthi rebels who are in control of the capital. Saudi Arabia has opened an investigation into the incident but denied culpability.

“Over the weekend there was this air strike on a funeral by the Saudi-led coalition,” Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked. “I was just wondering: does the administration see any difference between this kind of thing, and what you accuse the Russians, Syrians and the Iranians of doing in Syria, and particularly Aleppo?”

Mr Kirby struggled to answer the question, pointing out that the Kingdom has launched an investigation into how the funeral hall was hit, whereas nothing of the sort has been carried out by the Syrian or Russian governments, which he accused of deliberately causing harm to civilians. 

Russia did call for an investigation into the bombing of an aid convoy near Aleppo on September 19th, which contributed to the suspension of talks on Syria between Washington and Moscow

Scores dead in blasts at funeral in Yemeni capital

“What we’re seeing in Aleppo is nothing but a concerted effort in recent days to… subdue that city by force,” he said.

Rebel-held east Aleppo has been targeted by unprecedented air strikes since the collapse of a US and Russian brokered ceasefire last month. At least 330 people have died in the renewed assault, the World Health Organisation says, and activists on the ground put the figure much higher.  

 Both the Syrian and Russian governments maintain that strikes are targeted at terrorists who use civilians as human shields. 

Mr Lee, the AP’s diplomatic correspondent, continued to hold Mr Kirby’s feet to the fire on the Yemeni issue, pressing him for an answer on how “an increasing number of Yemeni civilians are at risk and being killed by weapons that the United States has furnished to the Saudis and their coalition partners.” 

“You don’t find any kind of issue with this? Because a lot of people do, including on [Capitol] Hill,” he added.

Mr Kirby said that the situation was very different in Syria and Yemen, pointing out that Iranian-supplied Houthi rockets have killed Saudi citizens in recent months. 

“The Saudi-led coalition were invited in by the Yemeni government - now I know what you’re going to say, the Russians were invited by [Syrian President] Assad… but [the Saudis] are under real threat on their side of the border in that war,” he said.  

Syria: Government advance in Aleppo continues as tanks cross front line

Earlier this week, an investigation by Reuters revealed that State Department officials and lawyers in Barack Obama’s administration did not come to a conclusion on whether the US could be legally defined as a ‘co-belligerent’ in Yemen’s war before selling Saudi Arabia armaments worth $1.3 billion last year. 

Several officials said worries were also expressed before the deal that the Saudi military did not have sophisticated enough weapons systems to target militants without causing unnecessary loss of civilian life.

More than 10,000 people have died in the Yemeni civil war, the UN says, and three million have been displaced from their homes.