Five years ago this month, a Saudi-led coalition began a bombing campaign in Yemen that was designed to defeat Houthi rebels and their allies and restore the government of Abd-Rubba Mansour Hadi, which the Houthis had overthrown. The Saudis and their backers naively assumed that it would be a short war – perhaps a matter of a few months at most. Five years and tens of thousands of lives later, the war has spiraled into the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe. With the likely spread of COVID-19 in a country whose health care system has already been devastated by the war, the situation is poised to get even worse.
At the outset, the Obama administration supported the Saudi war effort with arms, refueling services, and assistance with targeting of airstrikes, in part to demonstrate to the Saudi leadership that it was not “tilting towards Iran” in the wake of the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, formally known as the JCPOA. US officials shared the mistaken Saudi view that it would be a relatively short conflict. Many of them have since expressed regret for the Obama administration’s support of the Saudi war in Yemen. US fighter planes, bombs, and attack helicopters that were supplied as part of over $115 billion in arms offers during the Obama administration have been central to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. The Trump administration has made matters worse by increasing sales of bombs to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen, but the problem began in the Obama years.
With the likely spread of COVID-19 in a country whose health care system has already been devastated by the war, the situation is poised to get even worse.
The humanitarian consequences of the conflict are hard to fathom – thousands of civilians killed in airstrikes, over 100,000 dead from the direct and indirect effects of the war, more than ten million on the brink of famine, and over two million suspected cases of cholera, spurred by a lack of clean water and by airstrikes on hospitals and civilian infrastructure like water treatment plants.
Contrary to Saudi claims that they have taken care to avoid targeting civilians, the bombing campaign has repeatedly hit civilian targets – not only hospitals and essential infrastructure, but also civilian neighborhoods, marketplaces, factories, weddings, a funeral, and a school bus. One year into the conflict, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said that the Saudi actions “look like war crimes to me.” As independent human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented, both the Saudi- and Houthi-led coalitions have engaged in regular violations of the laws of war. Both sides have targeted civilians and impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid; in the case of the Houthis, they also recruited and utilized child soldiers.
Given the devastation caused by the war, the United States should have long since stopped its arms transfers and military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two key players in the anti-Houthi coalition. The United States is far and away the largest supplier to the Saudi regime, followed by the United Kingdom. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States was responsible for 73% of arm deliveries to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2019, followed by the United Kingdom at 13%. The Royal Saudi Air Force literally could not operate without US spare parts and maintenance. A cut off of US support can and should have been used as leverage to stop Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes and get them to negotiate in good faith for peace.
But despite unprecedented action by Congress – including bipartisan votes under the War Powers Resolution and votes in June and July of 2019 to block “emergency” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and several other countries, the Trump administrated vetoed these measures. This occurred even after Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018 had raised serious questions about the wisdom of the US-Saudi alliance.
President Trump’s statement on the issue explicitly cited the revenue from arms sales as a reason not to take action against the Saudi regime for the Khashoggi murder:
“$110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great US defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries . . .”
President Trump’s assertions on arms exports and jobs don’t stand up to even minimal scrutiny. Based on actual deliveries of arms – the best measure of how much money is actually flowing in any given year – US jobs tied to Saudi arms deals likely number in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 jobs, a small fraction of President Trump’s highest claims of employment tied to arms sales to the regime in Riyadh. Jobs should not be a factor in determining whether to continue to support the slaughter in Yemen, but if the President is going to cite them, he should at least get his facts straight.
With both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels now agreeing to a nationwide ceasefire to allow Yemen to deal with the threat of COVID-19, it is time to bring all available pressure to bear to go beyond the ceasefire and conclude an agreement to end the conflict. By ending arms and support for the Saudi war effort, the United States can play a role in making it happen.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.