After a coalition of gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral in Yemen in October, killing over 140 people and injuring hundreds more, the Obama administration announced that it would conduct a review of its support to the Saudi coalition. And after months of silence, last Tuesday, the administration announced that it would be cutting back on certain types of intelligence sharing with the Saudis and cancelling a $350 million sale of precision-guided missiles to the Kingdom.
This change in policy is certainly a step in the right direction, and is also a testament to the political power of a coalition of peace groups, human rights groups, and activists who have spoken out and organized against U.S. support for the war. At the same time, this news will be a cold comfort to the people of Yemen, many of whom live in constant fear of coalition airstrikes that have repeatedly hit schools, hospitals, marketplaces, residential areas, and other civilian infrastructure.
Since the start of the intervention in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, the U.S. has been conducting mid-air refuelings of coalition aircraft, providing targeting assistance, participating in a naval blockade of Yemen’s ports, and continually arming the coalition with advanced weaponry. In that time, the Obama administration has approved over $20 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia alone.
Taken on its own, the announcement that the U.S. will be taking some steps to curtail its support for the coalition could be read as a positive step in pressuring Saudi Arabia to stop dropping bombs on civilians and negotiate in good faith with the Houthi opposition it’s been waging war on. But taken in conjunction with the ongoing provision of intelligence and logistical support as well as other major arms deals, the changes announced this week begin to look less like a signal to the Saudis and more like an attempt to hamper ever-growing criticism of U.S. support for the Saudi coalition.
Case in point, five days before the administration announced these minor curtailments of U.S. support, the Department of Defense approved 5 massive arms deals to Saudi Arabia and other coalition partners. According to the International Business Times:
The sales include over $3.5 billion for CH-47F Chinook Cargo Helicopters to Saudi Arabia, an additional $3.5 billion for Apache AH-64E Helicopters to the UAE and about $108 million in TOW 2A missiles to Morocco. Also included were a $700 million deal for logistics support services and equipment and a $81 million deal for spare C-17 military transport plane engines and equipment headed to Qatar.
So as for the signal the administration is sending, as William Hartung of the Center for International Policy put it, “it’s a signal but too weak of a signal… As long as they’re going to refueling aircraft which is central to the bombing campaign, it’s hard to see that they’re using all the leverage they have.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), an outspoken critic of U.S. support for the war, went a step farther, tweeting in response to the announcements that it’s “SHAMEFUL that [the] US continues to refuel #Saudi jets that drop bombs on women and children in #Yemen.”
As U.S. complicity continues, the war has pushed nearly half a million Yemeni children to the brink of starvation, reports continue to surface of U.S. made weapons killing innocent men, women and children across Yemen, and the administration appears no closer to concluding let alone releasing its review of U.S. support for the coalition, which an administration official said is ongoing.
President Obama should make a point of completing and releasing the review before leaving office. Any truthful analysis of U.S. support could only conclude that the U.S. has been complicit in war crimes, and should immediately end all military support and arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the coalition pending an end to the war in Yemen. While making such a conclusion public could send shockwaves through the political establishment, it would be a major step forward in ensuring that future U.S. military support and arms sales to foreign nations do not facilitate war crimes, and that alone would be well worth it.