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The US Could End Saudi War Crimes in Yemen – It Just Doesn’t Want To

Despite its leverage over the Saudis, the Obama administration has been unwilling to force an end to the war in Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition is guilty of systematic war crimes in Yemen, and the US bears legal responsibility because of the use of arms purchased from the United States, an Amnesty International report charged in early October.

But although the Obama administration is not happy with the Saudi war and has tremendous leverage over the Saudis, it has demonstrated over the past several weeks that it is unwilling to use its leverage to force an end to the war. And it now appears that the administration is poised to resupply the munitions used by the Saudis in committing war crimes in Yemen.

The October 6 Amnesty report documented an openly declared Saudi policy of deliberately targeting two Yemeni cities for air attacks in violation of the laws of war. It also documented US liability for the war crimes committed in the air war against Yemen.

The report cited a public declaration by a Saudi military spokesman, Gen. Ahmad al-Asiri, on May 8 that the northern cities of Sa’da and Marram had been designated as “military targets loyal to the Huthi militias.” The Saudi spokesman went on to announce that “operations will cover the whole area of those two cities and thus we reiterate our call on civilians to stay away from these groups, and leave the areas under Huthi control or where the Huthis are sheltering.”

General al-Asiri’s declaration and the indiscriminate bombings that the Amnesty report found were carried out over the succeeding months are clear violations of the international laws of war, which forbid the targeting of civilian structures as well as the “collective punishment” of civilian populations.

Amnesty researchers who visited the Sa’da governorate in early July 2015 found that “hundreds of airstrikes had destroyed or damaged beyond repair scores of homes, several markets, the entire main shopping street and virtually every public building, including the post office, the court, banks and civilian administration offices.” They have also found that airstrikes on civilian homes in villages around Sa’da city have killed and injured hundreds of civilians not involved in the conflict, many of them children and women.

The same researchers found that Saudi-led forces used internationally banned cluster bombs, which scatter hundreds of smaller bombs over a wide area, as well as bombs as large as 2,000-pounds, which it said were also “likely to cause death and destruction indiscriminately or far beyond the strike location.” Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

According to a joint report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2,682 civilian deaths and injuries resulted from air bombardment in Yemen from late March to the end of July 2015 – more than anywhere else in the world during the first seven months of the year.

The US has a legal obligation not to provide weaponry it knows will be used in the indiscriminate bombing of Yemen.

The Saudis have also imposed a tight blockade on Yemen by air, land and water, to prevent not only weapons, but also food, fuel and medicine from reaching millions of Yemenis, creating a humanitarian disaster. Doctors Without Borders declared in July that the Saudi blockade was killing as many people in Yemen as the bombing. US Navy ships have been patrolling alongside Saudi ships to prevent arms from entering Yemen, while disclaiming any involvement in the Saudi-led blockade of food, fuel and medical supplies.

The Amnesty report points out that the United States has a legal obligation under the Arms Trade Treaty not to provide weaponry it knows will be used in the indiscriminate bombing of Yemen. Article 6 of that treaty, which entered into force in October 2014, forbids the transfer of arms and munitions to a party to an armed conflict if it has knowledge that the weaponry will be used for “attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a party.”

The Amnesty report notes that the United States is also providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition. This logistical assistance is particularly important because the Saudis and their Gulf allies need the assistance of US mechanics to keep their aircraft running. That fact gives the Obama administration a major source of leverage on Saudi policy. Furthermore, last summer the Saudis began to run low on the laser-guided bombs sold to them by the United States and requested to be resupplied. As a result, the Saudi decision to continue the war is dependent on a policy decision by Washington.

Resupplying the Saudis with the same US munitions that have been used to commit war crimes in Yemen also runs up against the Leahy Law – the domestic legislation governing US military sales and other forms of security assistance. That law prohibits military sales to forces that have engaged in gross violations of human rights, which would obviously include the blatant violations of the laws of war committed in Yemen.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration has thus far given no indication that it will deny the request.

The Obama administration knows very well that the reckless Saudi war in Yemen has serious consequences for US political and security interests in the Middle East. The war is not only disintegrating Yemeni society, but also is creating more opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the most dangerous affiliate of the terrorist organization – to recruit, train and plan jihadist operations against the United States.

The United States thus has strong policy and legal reasons for pressuring Saudi Arabia to end the carnage in Yemen, as well as very significant leverage on the Saudis. But the Obama administration has been unwilling to do anything consequential in response to Saudi defiance toward the UN-mediated cease-fire and political negotiations.

After they defeated the Houthis in Aden in July, the Saudis began to signal their intention to achieve a complete military victory in Yemen. The Saudi client government, led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, rejected any negotiations with the Houthis – even after the Houthis had accepted UN Security Council resolution 2216, including the return of the Saudi-backed government to Yemen for a period of 60 days while a new government was to be formed.

The Obama administration has been unwilling to do anything consequential in response to Saudi defiance toward the UN-mediated cease-fire.

That was the situation in mid-August when the Obama administration quietly notified Congress informally of its intention to resupply thousands of “Joint Direct Attack Munitions” as the Saudis requested, according to a September 3 Bloomberg News report. That move came as the White House contemplated the visit of Saudi King Salman to meet President Obama on September 4. The White House hoped to use the king’s visit to persuade him of the importance that the administration attached to an “endgame” – meaning a negotiated settlement – in Yemen, according to a former US official who had been briefed on the visit.

But Salman came and went without the slightest hint that the administration had pressed him on the issue, either through leaks to the press or through the issuing of an official statement. And in the days following the meeting, the Saudi-sponsored Hadi government reiterated its refusal to negotiate with the Houthis. UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed conveyed to the Hadi government that the Houthis accepted the entire Security Council resolution, except for one article on sanctions. In response, the Hadi government spokesman demanded that the Houthis accept every one of the 24 articles in the resolution.

The White House then publicly stated on September 16 that it was “disappointed” by “recent statements” suggesting that the peace process “might be delayed” and called on “all parties to participate in these peace talks without any preconditions.” That was a big step forward from its previous silence, but the message was buried in the last paragraph of a statement on humanitarian assistance to Yemen, as if to convey that the administration did not want to draw too much attention to it. It is hardly surprising that not a single news outlet reported on the statement.

The Obama administration shows no sign that it intends to use the Amnesty report on Saudi war crimes to force the war issue. In response to a request from Truthout for a comment on the Amnesty report’s findings and the apparent illegality of resupplying further munitions to the Saudis, a senior administration official did not respond except to acknowledge that the administration is “studying” the report.

The official then repeated word for word an anodyne statement that a State Department official had given to Sputnik News on September 17: “We have asked the Saudi government to investigate all credible reports of casualties resulting from coalition-led airstrikes and, if confirmed, to address the factors that led to them.”

Unfortunately, major US news media have supported the administration’s evasion of the issue by choosing not to report on Amnesty’s explosive report on war crimes.