Will Civilian Deaths in Yemen Force a Re-Set on U.S.-Saudi Relations?

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A new report finds more than one-third of air raids on Yemen conducted by Saudi Arabia have destroyed civilian institutions.

By Jared Keller


A man walks past flames rising from the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016, in the capital Sanaa. (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

While American politicians decry the long, costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, America and its allies are losing another battle in the War on Terror.

A new report based on data analyzed by the Yemen Data Project reveals that more than one-third of air raids on Yemen conducted by Saudi Arabia have destroyed civilian institutions including infrastructure and medical and educational facilities since the Saudi government’s intervention to support the Yemeni government in March 2015, according to the Guardian. Out of some 8,600 total air attacks executed in Yemen, there have been more than 3,000 mis-targeted Saudi airstrikes—like the one that leveled a hospital back in August. The United Nations puts the conflict’s death toll at more than 10,000, with nearly 3,800 civilians killed.

While the report deals specifically with Saudi Arabia, the United States bears some responsibility for its ally’s wild misuse of air superiority. While direct U.S. casualties in Yemen have been relatively few (105 civilian deaths out of 155 covert drone strikes since 2002, according to the Long War Journal), it’s American-made bombs that are wreaking havoc on the country. Yes, Saudi Arabia receives minimal military funding compared to other countries that get aid from the U.S. ($10,000 as part of International Military Education and Training assistance funding), but the Obama administration has sold a record $48 billion in arms to the Saudis since 2010, a figure that equals three times that of the Bush administration. In addition to weaponry, the Saudi campaign in Yemen benefits from “U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence,” per an April report from the Congressional Research Service.

As recently as mid-November 2015, the Obama administration informed Congress of the proposed sale of thousands of guided air-to-ground munitions worth $1.29 billion. The proposed sale was immediately condemned by critics as a gross violation of international humanitarian law; in January 2016 , U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the U.S. that “the use of cluster munitions in populated areas may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature,” per the CRS.

While direct U.S. casualties in Yemen have been relatively few, it’s American-made bombs that are wreaking havoc on the country.

After months of international criticism falling on deaf ears, the true impact of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia now has a body count attached to it. “It is outrageous that states have continued to supply the Saudi Arabia-led coalition with weapons, including guided and general purpose aerial bombs and combat aircraft,” Amnesty International’s research and advocacy chief Philip Luther told the Agence France-Presse, noting that there was “stark evidence” —���like the Yemen Data Project’s analysis — “that those arms are being used to attack hospitals and other civilian objects and in other serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

It seems that lawmakers in Washington are getting the message too. Last week, four senators introduced a joint resolution blocking the sale of a cache of military equipment to the Saudis, Reuters reports. The move came weeks after a bipartisan coalition of 60 U.S. congressman urged President Barack Obama to delay the sale, citing the Saudi use of U.S. arms in Syria’s “deeply troubling impact on civilians.” SaidSenator Rand Paul of the joint resolution: “Selling $1.15 billion in tanks, guns, ammunition, and more to a country with a poor human rights record embroiled in a bitter war is a recipe for disaster and an escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region.”

During his presidency, Obama extended U.S. military power across the globe with the use of targeted airstrikes, but his campaign against al-Qaeda and ISIS has also left a growingnumbers of civilian bodies in its wake.

America’s been feeling the growing burden of the Saudi liability for months, at least since the country triggered international outcry with its execution of 47 people for terrorism-related offenses, the largest mass execution in decades, according to Pacific Standard’s Cameron Hood. The doublethink of the U.S. diplomatic calculus on Saudi Arabia — condemning civilian deaths while selling off deadly weapons, championing human rights while quietly overlooking abuses among its supposed “friend” — cannot stand another bloody contradiction.

With the unanimous approval of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in May (despite the threat of an Obama veto) by the Senate, U.S. lawmakers are sending a clear message that they’re willing to re-think the nation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The question remains: How many bodies have to pile up in Yemen for the White House to do the same?