Is the US-Saudi military love-in coming to an end?

Is the US-Saudi military love-in coming to an end?
Analysis: Growing outrage over Washington's complicity in the Yemen war is leading lawmakers to fight against US military support for Saudi Arabia, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
4 min read
31 July, 2018
US arms sales to Saudi Arabia have generated protests [Getty]
Increasing knowledge of Yemen's dire humanitarian catastrophe has inspired members of the US Senate and Congress to begin the battle against Washington's vast support for Saudi Arabia and its complicity in Riyadh's bombing campaign in Yemen.

Attempts to halt arms sales this year came from veteran Senator Bernie Sanders, Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Chris Murphy. More recently, the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) was unveiled by the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, announced by Congressman Ted Lieu. It aims to restrict the US military's ability to refuel Saudi military aircraft.

"I'm glad we're going to be able to hold our coalition partners accountable for any failures to protect civilians in Yemen," said Lieu. "Because the US is providing military and other support for the coalition, we have a duty to ensure the coalition is complying with international laws and the law of war." 

The US is the biggest military provider to Saudi Arabia, sending even more advanced weaponry than the UK. Having already sold tens of billions of dollars' worth of weapons under the Obama administration, the Trump administration last year signed a deal worth $110 billion, which many US legal experts, including the American Bar Association, consider illegal. 

Along with helping refuel Saudi bombers, Washington has sold advanced missiles and trained Saudi military forces.

Critics have said that, without American and British support, the Saudi air force would not function.

Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, believes this latest bill could direct further US attention to Saudi Arabia's actions.

"The bill would require the Secretary of State to report to Congress about various measures Saudi Arabia and the UAE should take in Yemen, including regarding the protection of civilians," she told The New Arab.  

"The US has been quite unwavering in its support of the Saudi-led coalition - despite numerous reports of civilian casualties and virtually no efforts at real accountability.

"The bill will hopefully remind the administration that Congress is watching and prepared to take steps to curtail unqualified US support if the administration refuses to do so," Prasow added.

The NDAA bill would not completely ban the refuelling however; it only requires Saudi Arabia to meet certain requirements before the US military can do so, which risks the possibility of continued support via loopholes.

"This amendment sets out no clear criteria for what would constitute an acceptable certification. It also allows the administration to waive these requirements on national security grounds and provides a few other dangerous loopholes. It is beyond question that the administration will either provide the necessary certification or grant itself a waiver, so it's doubtful that this provision will result in an end to refueling operations," Will Picard, executive director of the Yemen Peace Project, told The New Arab.

"I expect that the administration's responses will prove unsatisfactory to many members of Congress, which will hopefully increase congressional opposition to the war."

The bill also fails to address US arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. In March, Defense Secretary James Mattis defended arms sales to Riyadh to lawmakers, showing the administration's staunch support for the current policy.

However, the latest developments show the increasing pressure which could yet alter the White House's stance.

The Senate has previously tried to push to end weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. In March, a Senate resolution backed by Bernie Sanders, which could have completely ended military support, was defeated 55-44.

This was also an increase in support for a resolution in September 2016, to halt a $1.15 billion weapons transfer to Riyadh, which was defeated 71-27. This indicates that opposition to US policies towards the Yemen war is at least brewing within governing circles.

Bernie Sanders' office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Significantly, in response to the UAE-led assault on Hodeida which began in June, many members of Congress voiced opposition to the attack, echoing concerns of human rights organisations. While not enough was done to prevent the Hodeida conflict, it directed further attention to the US enabling of the Yemen war.

Meanwhile, opposition to supporting Saudi Arabia is growing among among the US public at large. In one recent poll, 84 percent of respondents said they opposed US military aid for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

"We're optimistic that this will translate into further concrete legislative action in the months to come, and that ultimately Congress will act decisively to take the US out of this war and support the UN-led peace process," said Picard.

"Advocacy organisations and members of Congress are using a few different tactics to limit US support for the coalition, including raising legal and legislative challenges to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and using other provisions of US law - like the Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act - to prevent further military assistance. The inclusion of sections 1290 and 1274 in the final version of the NDAA proves that momentum is growing in Congress, and that legislators are increasingly willing to challenge the administration on Yemen."

The increased awareness of suffering in Yemen appears to be leading to greater action within the bodies of US government. While this latest bill alone may not significantly scale back US support for the coalition's actions, it will set a precedent in this growing trend of opposition towards US arms sales and pave a path for more challenges in the near future.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey