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Mixed messages

A blocked arms sale to Saudi Arabia is just the latest U.S. response to mounting civilian casualties in Yemen

The many civilian casualties in Yemen that led to the blocked arms sale to Saudi Arabia

The White House’s decision this week to block a U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia is just the latest sign that the Obama administration’s patience is growing thin with the longtime U.S. ally, and its military conduct in Yemen. 

The blocked sale of 16,000 guided munition kits will lose U.S. defense contractor Raytheon about $350 million over the course of the contract, and comes two months after the White House condemned a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a.

U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque,” Ned Simmons, a national security council spokesman, said at the time.

It is the second time this year the administration has sought to make a point to the Kingdom by intervening in its planned arms purchases. In May, the White House blocked a cluster munitions transfer after rights groups reported that cluster bombs, which pose an especially significant danger to civilian populations and which have been banned by more than 100 countries, were dropping in civilian areas.

But that intervention did little to correct unrestrained Saudi-led coalition tactics in the war-torn country. A few months later, a coalition strike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital with cluster bombs, killing 11 people and forcing one of the last international aid organizations operating in the country to scale back its operations.

“The administration’s message is so muddled, it’s hard to see how this move will affect change,” Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch said of the White House’s latest announcement. “Yes, deciding to halt one sale is more than other countries like the UK have done… but given the scale and scope of this war, it is insufficient.”

That’s because the sale of 16,000 precision munitions that the White House blocked this week is just a fraction of the overall support the U.S. has provided to Saudi Arabia during its nearly two-year war with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. weaponry is still being used in the war, or on its way over. And the U.S. continues to provide critical support in the form of midair refueling for Saudi jets, along with some intelligence and logistical advice.

Senator Chris Murphy, a vocal critic of America’s continued support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, said that if the U.S. is serious about stopping civilian deaths, it should stop refueling Saudi fighter jets mid-air.

“Halting these weapons sales to the Saudis is the right call,” Murphy said. “But any further assistance — including weapons deliveries already in the pipeline — should be conditioned on prioritizing civilian protection.”

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the war began in March 2015, according to UN estimates, with both sides being accused of war crimes in that time. But the UN found Saudi-led coalition forces were responsible for killing three times as many civilians as their opposition, the Iran-backed Houthi-allied forces.

Meanwhile, 3 million people have been displaced from their homes, and ongoing air strikes and port blockades have pushed the country — which has to import 90 percent of its food, fuel, and medical supplies — to the brink of economic collapse and famine.

Murphy is hardly the only U.S. lawmaker to criticize ongoing U.S. involvement in Yemen.

In October, Congressman and former air force lawyer Ted Lieu warned the Obama administration that U.S. armed services could be implicated in war crimes for their support in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing offensive. Several other lawmakers, including Senator Rand Paul, submitted a joint resolution in September to express disapproval of a $1.15B military sale to Saudi Arabia. It passed, but 27 senators voted against it.

To date, Human Rights Watch has identified U.S-made weapons in the rubble of at least 23 separate alleged unlawful Saudi-led coalition strikes in Yemen. Such findings have repeatedly placed Saudi Arabia and its coalition forces in the war crimes conversation.

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