U.S. cuts arms sales to Saudis over civilian casualties in Yemen

An unexploded M77 DPICM submunition found in Dughayj village, northern Yemen, after a cluster munition attack in June or July 2015. (Credit: Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch)

After months of pressure from members of Congress and human rights activists, the U.S. is limiting its military support for Saudi Arabia.

The White House announced Tuesday that it would refocus its priorities and scrap a $300 million arms deal over concerns about civilian casualties. Activists accuse the Saudi-led coalition of indiscriminately bombing hospitals and schools in Yemen.

“We have long expressed some significant concerns about the high rate of civilian casualties in Yemen. And many of those casualties have been as a result of operations carried out by the Saudi-led coalition,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at Tuesday’s press briefing. “Of course the United States is playing a role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition.”

Saudi Arabia is an important partner in the Middle East. Earnest said the U.S. will continue its support, particularly as Saudi Arabia takes steps to protect its border and prevent attacks in Yemen from spilling over. Air refueling of jets that carry out strikes will also continue.

The cancellation comes after a group of senators failed to block the sale of tanks to the Saudis in September. Tuesday’s announcement was met with qualified support.

“Halting these weapons sales to the Saudis is the right call. But if we are concerned about U.S.-supplied bombs being dropped on civilians, we should also stop refueling the Saudi planes that are flying those missions,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a statement to Humanosphere. “Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh alliance have been responsible for killing innocent civilians and denying vitally needed humanitarian aid. Any further assistance – including weapons deliveries already in the pipeline – should be conditioned on prioritizing civilian protection and a willingness to compromise in political negotiations to end the war.”

The Obama administration canceled the deal to sell about 16,000 guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia. The decision follows an investigation that was launched after a bombing in October killed more than 100 people in a funeral hall. Activists decried the bombing and suggested that it – as well as other bombings – constituted a war crime. In August, a coalition strike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 11 people. An investigation determined it to be an “unintentional mistake.”

Activists demanded that the U.S. and other partners withdraw technical support, stop refueling Saudi planes and cease arms sales. The White House launched the October investigation with the hopes it would signal the gravity of the attack to its Saudi partner and forge a path to peace.

It did not work out as planned. A peace deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry and endorsed by most parties to the conflict failed last month when the Yemeni government rejected it. The U.S. had to follow through on its warnings to the coalition: Continued civilian casualties will have consequences.

But activists argue that withholding these precision munitions could actually end up increasing civilian casualties and the problem isn’t the munitions and the targets, it’s the bombings.

“The U.S. should stop any support for the war in Yemen,” Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy adviser, told Humanosphere. “I know it was a difficult decision for the administration. I think it was a wise decision”

Yemen is nearly three years into a civil war after rebels overran the government. The Saudi-led coalition began supporting the government in March 2015. As of August, about 60 percent of the 3,800 civilians killed during the fighting were by coalition forces. Both the coalition forces and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been accused of war crimes.

“This will send the message that they have been trying to send for the past 18 months. They are trying to tell the Saudis that they are really concerned about civilian casualties, and they are really concerned about finding peace,” said Paul.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.