Lawmakers amplify criticism of US support for Saudi bombing campaign
Lawmakers are renewing their criticism of the United States’ support for a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign against rebels in Yemen’s civil war in the wake of a mounting civilian death toll.
The Saudis restarted their bombing campaign earlier this month after a United Nations-led peace process collapsed, and in the last week, they are alleged to have killed civilians in airstrikes that hit a school and a hospital, among others.
“It’s a moral abomination that the U.S. is continuing to support a Saudi-led coalition that is killing civilians on a frequent basis,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told The Hill.
U.S. support for the campaign includes selling the Saudis weapons, providing limited intelligence and helping with logistics such as air refueling. The United States also has a "small number" of commandos on the ground in Yemen supporting local forces fighting al Qaeda, but that is separate from the Saudi campaign.
Reuters reported this week that the number of service members assigned to the coordination with Saudi Arabia has sharply dropped, but U.S. officials said support for the campaign has not diminished.
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since early 2015, when Houthi rebels took over the capital of Sanaa and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden. Saudi Arabia, concerned about Iran’s support of the Houthis in a neighboring country, formed a coalition and intervened in support of Hadi.
As of Aug. 11, 3,704 civilians have been killed in the conflict and 6,566 have been injured, according to the United Nations.
The Saudi coalition has come under scrutiny for civilian deaths before. But critics say more than a year after the war began, the targeting has gotten worse, not better. And their objections have grown louder with the latest civilian deaths.
Last weekend, coalition airstrikes allegedly hit a school, killing 10 children and wounding 28 others in the Haydan district in northern Yemen. Saudi Arabia has maintained that the airstrikes hit a Houthi traning camp and the children were there as recruits.
That was followed Monday with a coalition airstrike that hit the Doctors Without Borders-supported Abs Hospital in Yemen’s Hajjah governorate, killing at least 19 people and injuring 24.
In response, on Thursday, Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF, pulled its staff out of six hospitals in northern Yemen and called on the United States and other coalition partners to ensure civilians are protected.
“This latest incident shows that the current rules of engagement, military protocols and procedures are inadequate in avoiding attacks on hospitals and need revision and changes,” Joan Tubau, the organization’s general director, said in a written statement this week. “MSF asks the Saudi-led coalition and the governments supporting the coalition, particularly the U.S., U.K. and France, to ensure an immediate application of measures to substantially increase the protection of civilians.”
The coalition said Friday it is investigating reports of civilian casualties.
“We are seeking urgent discussions with MSF to understand how we can work together to resolve this situation,” the coalition said in a statement carried by Saudi state news agency SPA. “The coalition is committed to full respect for international humanitarian law in the conduct of our operations in Yemen. The coalition has established an independent Joint Incidents Assessment Team to investigate reports of civilian casualties resulting from coalition action and to recommend changes to our operations where problems have occurred.”
U.S. officials have expressed concerns to the Saudis about the latest civilian casualties.
“We strongly urge all sides to end these kinds of offensive military actions in Yemen,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing this week. “We have obviously expressed our concerns to the Saudi-led coalition. We’ve urged them, as I said, to cease all military action.
“The only solution to Yemen’s challenges, as we have said many times, is through peaceful dialogue, so we reiterate our calls for the Saudi-led coalition to take all feasible measures to protect civilians while also ensuring accountability and avoiding future civilian harm.”
U.S. lawmakers who oppose U.S. support for the campaign are specifically looking at targeting a recently announced $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
The sale, approved by the State Department last week, would provide tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, grenade launchers and other equipment.
Though blocking weapons sales has received some bipartisan support, those who are opposed to the sales are largely Democrats, while those who support the sales are mostly Republicans.
By law, Congress has 30 days to block the latest sale.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has vowed to block it.
“Saudi Arabia is an unreliable ally with a poor human rights record,” Paul said in a written statement this week. “We should not rush to sell them advanced arms and promote an arms race in the Middle East. I will work with a bipartisan coalition to explore forcing a vote on blocking this sale."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he and his colleagues are still deciding their exact tactic, which he said might range from trying to block the sale entirely to trying to impose conditions on it. He and Paul previously introduced a resolution that would set conditions on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia such as ensuring the country is taking steps to protect civilians.
In addition to the tragedy of civilian deaths, the campaign runs counter to U.S. national security interests by increasing anti-American sentiment, Murphy said. Also, chaos in the country has allowed the al Qaeda branch there to thrive.
“In Yemen, this is not seen as a Saudi bombing campaign,” he said. “This is seen as a U.S. bombing campaign. If our primary worry is radicalization, then we’re contradicting our main national security concern every day.”
Up until recently, he added, questioning the U.S.-Saudi relationship was considered “countercultural.” In particular, he said “conventional wisdom” has been that the relationship needs to be repaired after the Iran nuclear deal and that Iran’s influence in the region needs to be pushed back on by targeting the Houthis.
But, he said he thinks more of his colleagues are realizing the danger of using the campaign in Yemen to accomplish that.
“Despite Saudi visits telling us that they’re going to do better, we still hospitals and schools and factories being targeted,” he said. “We need to wake up to reality.”
Lieu agreed that momentum is building to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He highlighted that 204 lawmakers voted to ban the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in June. That wasn’t enough for the amendment to pass, but it represented bipartisan support.
When asked why he thinks the United States continues to support the Saudi campaign despite civilian causalities, Lieu said, “I have no idea because it goes against what the U.S. stands for.”