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Imad K. Harb

Crisis in Yemen: America must end its weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia

Trump boasts of defence sales to Saudi Arabia, during Mohammed bin Salman's USA visit [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2018

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Comment: The Saudi-led coalition's intervention in Yemen has only brought death and calamity, writes Imad K. Harb.
The Trump administration has once again decided to throw its weight behind the Saudi-Emirati war effort in Yemen that has contributed to creating one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world today.

On 11 September, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates "are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure…"  

As if on cue, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen's Houthi rebels resumed airstrikes on targets in the western port city of Hodeida. Units from the Yemeni army also went into action, capturing two roads surrounding the city.

Dragged into the fray

Required by the recently-passed McCain National Defense Authorization Act, the certification is merely a bureaucratic gambit that is no real obstacle for the administration. But while hardly anyone doubted that the certification would be granted, it does not absolve the United States from the responsibility of helping to perpetuate the Yemen war.

The Trump administration continues to supply weapons to the Gulf duo, share intelligence, and refuel Saudi-led coalition aircraft during operations. It has thus come under heavy criticism in Congress and the media, especially when such operations betray a wanton disregard for civilian life.

Three specific incidents stood out last August as egregious examples of inaccurate targeting for which the supply of smart American bombs could never be a correction.

The bomb that caused the bus carnage was a 500-pound American-supplied MK-82 laser-guided one sold by Lockheed Martin

On 2 August, at least 28, and as many as 70 civilians died, and more than 100 were injured in a coalition airstrike on a hospital during the siege of Hodeida. The city had been under attack since June.

On 9 August, another coalition airstrike hit a school bus in northern Yemen, killing 54 people, 44 of whom were children on a field trip, and wounding scores of other civilians.

A CNN report stated that munitions experts determined that the bomb that caused the bus carnage was a 500-pound American-supplied MK-82 laser-guided one sold by Lockheed Martin.

The report also said that similar bombs caused the death of 97 people at a market in March 2016, and 155 others at a funeral home the following October. The funeral home attack prompted the Obama administration to halt the sale of the munitions; until the Trump administration resumed it in March 2017.

On 23 August, a coalition strike on Hodeida cost the lives of 22 children and four women. Both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis accused each other of that attack; but a United Nations relief official, Mark Lowcock, asserted that the coalition was responsible.

At times, Saudi Arabia has denied responsibility for attacks against civilians. At others, it admitted mistakes in targeting, as happened regarding the school bus attack. It may also simply be retaliating to Houthi missile attacks on its territory.

Confusion and cross-purposes

From his side, President Trump has declared that the United States will help Saudi Arabia against the Houthis whom he sees as a tool for Iran's foreign policy. He also considers American sales to the kingdom as a boon for American jobs.

With knowledge of Yemen and close ties to Gulf military institutions, Secretary of Defense James Mattis would like to keep American options open.  

Ahead of negotiations last March on a war powers resolution that Democratic senators wished would end American involvement in the war, Mattis sent a letter to the Senate urging its leaders not to vote to cut off arms supplies to Saudi Arabia.

After last August's attacks, Mattis still adhered to his message about aiding Saudi Arabia but simultaneously dispatched a three-star general to voice US concerns about the targeting and civilian casualties. He also said that US assistance "is not unconditional".

Congressional and other criticism

What has caused criticism by American opponents of the US' indirect role is the scale of the attacks and the apparent disregard for the simplest laws of war. And that is in addition to the original opposition to the war in the first place.

The requirement for the aforementioned certification was inserted into the McCain Defense Authorisation Act by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Todd Young (R-IN).

Trump considers American sales to the kingdom as a boon for American jobs

Shaheen came out strongly against the certification when the State Department granted it, while Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) was unequivocal about criticising it as "a farce". Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said Pompeo's decision was "a rubber stamp for Saudi Arabia".

Last March's war powers resolution was approved by 44 senators out of the Senate's 100. While unsuccessful, the vote sent a powerful political message that is likely to gradually shift the sentiment in Congress toward that end, especially if Democrats win at least one of its two houses in the Midterm elections this November.

Read more: US 'certifies' UAE-Saudi 'efforts' in reducing Yemen civilian deaths, despite evidence to the contrary

Another source of criticism for the administration's stance comes from the media. The Editorial Boards of The Washington Post and The New York Times have penned scathing condemnations.

On August 18, The Post's board criticised what amounts to "callousness" on the part of the Trump administration because of its reluctance to work on limiting the damage from its supplies of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.

Under the sobering headline "Why Are US Bombs Killing Civilians in Yemen?" on 28 August, The Times' board cited human rights organisations that criticised unsatisfactory investigations conducted into the attacks, and that accused the coalition of war crimes.

Both newspapers called on the United States to withdraw its support for the coalition, because failure to do so would make it complicit in the war crimes committed in Yemen.

The Trump administration would thus do well to send a multipurpose message about its association with the Saudi-led coalition and role in Yemen.

This message should contain an unequivocal repudiation of the war crimes committed in Yemen, both by America's friends and allies, and by the Houthis. It also should end weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia and its coalition.

The Trump administration continues to supply weapons to the Gulf duo, share intelligence, and refuel Saudi-led coalition aircraft during operations

Perhaps the best the United States can do is offer to use American diplomacy to help UN envoy Martin Griffiths chart and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Yemeni crisis that began in 2014.

It has become patently obvious that the Saudi-led coalition's intervention in Yemen has only brought death and calamity.

Given the US' good relations with the kingdom, the United States can be the necessary agent for all actors to awaken from this nightmare in Yemen.


Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

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