At least twice in the past month, airstrikes by the U.S.-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen have resulted in the deaths of innocent children. While the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been ongoing for several years, these high-profile tragedies are finally calling Americans’ attention to the fact that we might be abetting war crimes there.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned Saudi Arabia, which is leading the coalition along with the United Arab Emirates, that U.S. support for their military intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis was not unconditional and could be reduced if they do not “do everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life.”
Mattis’s threat comes as the Trump administration faces growing pressure from military leaders, Congress, human rights groups, and the international community to either compel our allies to clean up their act or cut them loose.
Earlier this month, an investigative report found that the coalition was cutting deals with Al-Qaeda militants to help them fight the Houthis. On Monday, Lieutenant General Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the top American air commander in the Middle East, publicly criticized the coalition for not being transparent about a strike that hit a school bus earlier this month and killed some 40 children. A Human Rights Watch report last week concluded that the internal investigations being carried out by the coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team failed “to provide credible, impartial, and transparent investigations into alleged coalition laws-of-war violations.”
On top of all that, a U.N. report published on Tuesday found that the Saudis and Emiratis were doing nothing to prevent or minimize civilian casualties in their air campaign, for which the U.S. has been providing air refueling and some intelligence support. Furthermore, the report found evidence that the coalition had engaged in various other atrocities, including rape, torture, and the use of child soldiers.
The U.N. report accuses the Houthi rebels of committing potential war crimes as well, but coalition airstrikes were found to be causing the majority of civilian casualties — in many instances with planes and/or bombs purchased from the U.S.
The report has given fresh ammunition to congressional critics of our involvement in the Yemen conflict, like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who tweeted out the report with the comment, “There it is. WAR CRIMES. Funded and facilitated by the United States.” Despite Mattis’s assertions that the Pentagon was taking a tougher line with the Saudis, he also reaffirmed their “right to self-defense” and did not raise the prospect of cutting off support entirely, much less curtailing sales of American arms to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
Whatever effort Mattis is making to scold the Saudis into behaving themselves is unlikely to bear much fruit, considering the lack of moral standing the U.S. has on this particular issue. As a former senior U.S. intelligence official put it in comments to Al-Monitor: “There is great frustration on the Saudi side that a country that fought a war in Iraq for 20 years and turned Raqqa and Mosul to rubble is telling the Saudis what to do in a country that’s on their border three years in … They know they’re one lucky shot from having a missile from Yemen hitting their own preschool in Jazan.”
Saudi state media outlets, meanwhile, are praising the coalition’s “peace efforts” in Yemen and touting the dispatch of some aid trucks to the embattled Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where much of the latest fighting and associated civilian misery has taken place. Saudi officials have accused the U.N. of bias, even though the report concluded that the Houthis were also at fault. All in all, our ally is not sounding terribly contrite.
Even if Mattis decides to scale back support for the coalition, it’s not clear that his boss will sign off on such a move. President Donald Trump has been highly solicitous of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., which he sees as important allies against Iran. In his expansive signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month, Trump swept aside a provision requiring his government to stop assisting in the campaign unless Mattis can authorize that the coalition is making good-faith efforts to avoid civilian casualties and improve the humanitarian situation. He also struck out a section requiring the appointment of an officer to develop standards for tracking and reducing civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations.
Lawmakers opposed to our involvement in Yemen, like Murphy and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, want to know whether the U.S. is directly complicit in the airstrikes that are hitting illegal civilian targets. Unfortunately for them, Lieutenant General Harrigian explained in a recent interview with Defense News, tracking where our weapons end up being used is complicated, and sometimes our involvement in a specific coalition action is hard to measure. Either way, lawmakers are unlikely to get their questions answered.
Nonetheless, it is beyond dispute that the U.S. supplies Saudi Arabia and the UAE with billions of dollars’ worth of arms, that both countries are serial violators of human rights, and that they are engaged in a war that is hardly a clear-cut, proportional act of self-defense. Those facts alone should call into question the legality of our support for their military activities under the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act. Indeed, the Obama administration banned the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia in response to its documented human rights abuses — a ban the Trump administration was quick to overturn last year.
There’s a bigger-picture reason, however, why Mattis’s efforts are too little, too late: With or without our direct assistance, the Saudis and Emiratis have already purchased enough American-made firepower to keep bombing Yemeni schoolchildren for years to come. In that respect, our complicity is already set in and impossible to wash out. Furthermore, there’s little reason to believe the U.S. government or American companies will stop taking their money anytime soon.
In March, the State Department approved a $670 million sale to Saudi Arabia of some 6,700 Raytheon anti-tank missiles. (In a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the time, Mattis flattered Saudi Arabia as “part of the solution” in Yemen). That’s just a drop in the bucket of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales the U.S. intends to make to Saudi Arabia under an agreement signed during Trump’s visit to Riyadh last year.
Whether or not those deals ultimately come through (and many of them will not), the Trump administration has been crystal clear about its preference to sell more weaponry to these countries, not less. It is difficult to imagine an economic populist like Trump, with his special affinity for Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian leadership, passing up the opportunity to enrich the U.S. by selling bombs to his buddies to drop on Iranian proxies in some “shithole” country.
Taking a broader view of the problem, U.S. arms flow to Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich troublemakers in the Gulf under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s because weapons manufacturers and defense contractors employ hundreds of thousands of Americans, so these sales are easily pitched to working-class voters as home runs for U.S. industry and by extension, their livelihoods.
Once the rockets ship out, who cares where they come down? That’s not our department.