Belated Pushback on Saudis’ War on Yemen

Exclusive: Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels has created a humanitarian crisis, with opposition finally emerging in Congress to the U.S. assistance in the bloodbath, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

If there were an Olympics for waging bloody wars, Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition allies would surely win a medal for their relentless bombing of Yemen over the past year and a half to crush rebels who seized power in 2014.

One international NGO has called the ongoing war in Yemen “arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” which is saying a lot considering the competition from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When I first wrote about the Yemen conflict in April 2015, the death toll stood at several hundred, with more than a quarter million people displaced. Today the United Nation’s human rights office estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed and three million displaced. The World Food Programme reports that seven million people — more than a quarter of Yemen’s population — are “on the brink of famine.”

In March, the U.N. human rights chief accused the Saudi-led coalition of causing “twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of air strikes.” Given the regularity of bombing attacks on hospitals, clinics, schools, wedding parties and other civilian targets, he added, “we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the coalition.”

The war is destroying Yemen’s cultural heritage as well. Last fall, the director of Yemen’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums reported that Saudi-led bombing raids in his country had destroyed six ancient cities, six castles, three museums, two mosques, four palaces, and other priceless archeological sites throughout the country — including much of the ancient city of Sana’a, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Earlier this year the U.N. pulled back from condemning Saudi Arabia after the kingdom threatened to yank hundreds of millions of dollars from international programs. Private human rights organizations, on the other hand, have not hesitated to accuse the coalition of committing war crimes.

This week, Middle East Eye reported that “The humanitarian calamity in Yemen entered a terrifying new phase of horror” as Saudi Arabia resumed air strikes on the capital city of Sana’a following the failure of peace talks in Kuwait: “The assaults are destroying civilian infrastructure, and threaten to prevent food and desperately needed aid from reaching the capital.”

On Aug. 20, Saudi pilots bombed downtown Sana’a as hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the largest demonstration in the country’s history to protest the war. Other recent bombing raids have killed dozens of civilians at sites including a potato chip factory, a school, the main bridge used to transport food to the capital, and a medical center run by Doctors Without Borders. The latter attack — the fourth targeting its facilities in the past year — prompted the organization to evacuate all of its medical teams from north Yemen.

Pushing Back on Washington’s Support

In return for Riyadh’s agreement not to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington has backed Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention with diplomatic support in the United Nations, military intelligence and aircraft refueling assistance, and an open-ended weapons pipeline. U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama years have amounted to $48 billion, three times the total under George W. Bush.

In June, Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed international concerns about the carnage, telling an interviewer, “I think the Saudis have expressed in the last weeks their desire to make certain that they’re acting responsibly, and not endangering civilians.”

But the Obama administration’s support for Saudi Arabia’s criminal policies is at last beginning to trouble many legislators on Capitol Hill.

On Aug. 29, 64 members of Congress asked President Obama to postpone his latest plans to sell $1.2 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia, including tanks and machine guns for use in Yemen. Their letter declares that documented attacks by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen against hospitals, schools, markets, and places of worship “may amount to war crimes.”

The bipartisan letter, co-led by Reps. John Conyers, D-Michigan, Ted Lieu, D-California, Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina, and Ted Yoho, R-Florida, takes Obama to task for notifying Congress of the latest planned arms sale on Aug. 8, during the usual congressional recess, giving legislators little time to consider the deal after they return within the 30-day review window established by law.

The letter also chides Obama for ignoring a vote last June by 204 members of the House, including 40 Republicans and all but 16 Democrats, “to block the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia after reports of their use in civilian areas in Yemen.” (More than 108 nations, not including the United States, have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, pledging never to use or transfer such vicious weapons, which are notorious for killing and maiming civilians.)

Rep. Lieu, who represents Los Angeles County, said in a statement accompanying the letter, “The actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are as reprehensible as they are illegal. . . . Hospitals, schools, and wedding parties are not legitimate military targets. Saudi Arabia is either intentionally targeting civilians or deliberately indifferent in executing its military operations – either case flies in the face of long-standing international standards of conduct.

“The United States of America should never support such atrocities in any way. They are not only immoral and unlawful, but they seriously harm our national security and moral standing around the world.”

The letter was endorsed by a host of NGOs, including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Physicians for Human Rights, and the traditionally conservative Hudson Institute.

Hope for Challenging the Saudis

Robert Naiman, whose organization Just Foreign Policy also supported the congressional letter, told me “this is the first time we’ve had so many members of Congress signing such a letter and getting significant attention” for the Yemen war.

He added, “If there is enough discord, the administration may back off. This will put pressure on them to get a renewal of the ceasefire and the political process in Yemen.”

As evidence that human rights campaigns and congressional complaints can make a difference, Naiman cited the breaking news that Textron Systems, the last remaining U.S. manufacturer of the cluster bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, is ending production of the munitions. Explaining its decision, Textron said “The current political environment has made it difficult to obtain” approvals from Congress and the administration.

When Congress returns to session on Sept. 6, Senators Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, plan to introduce a resolution in their chamber to disapprove the pending arms sale.

Sen. Murphy told CNN on Aug. 16, after Saudi Arabia bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, “There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen. Why? Well it’s because although the Saudis are actually dropping the bombs from their planes, they couldn’t do it without the United States.”

The chances are small that the Republican-led Senate will turn down further arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but a recent close Senate committee vote on training funds for Saudi Arabia suggests that opposition is growing in that branch as well.

“The dynamic has changed,” says Naiman, crediting antiwar activists in Congress and private organizations. “Criticism of Saudi Arabia is not taboo anymore. We have changed perceptions, and we are on the playing field in a way we never were before.”

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

13 comments for “Belated Pushback on Saudis’ War on Yemen

  1. Pablo Diablo
    September 2, 2016 at 20:57

    I believe Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American made weapons. Mr. NOBEL PEACE PRIZE Obama has fueled the WAR MACHINE better than any past President. Hillary will fuel the WAR MACHINE even better.

  2. Dilbert
    September 2, 2016 at 18:21

    “The United States of America should never support such atrocities in any way. They are not only immoral and unlawful, but they seriously harm our national security and moral standing around the world.”


    Every single day there are news stories that make me think that our country is doomed to fail. This is one of those stories. It is almost inconceivable that we have such vile idiots running our government that align our country with the likes of Saudi Arabia – that decapitates women in the streets for adultery (often when the women themselves are the victims of rape), that locks up people in prison for speaking out against the evil Saudi government, that practices female genital mutilation, and that marries children off to pedophiles.

    These people in DC are disgusting. If our country does not stop using legal mumbo jumbo to condone evil (e.g. child rape in Afghanistan and “deals” with the likes of these demons in Saudi Arabia) then don’t be surprised when this country falls.

    If this is what our federal government has become then it very clearly needs to overthrown with a Convention of States.

    In fact, a Convention of States cannot come soon enough! I am sick of these Deep State and administration people in DC. They have proved over and over again that they are unethical, dumb, and have no morals whatsoever! – despite whatever legal junk they like to quote to justify their actions.

    The real question is what in the hell are they teaching at the universities these people attended? Let me answer – stupidity 101, lack of logic 101, unethics 101, and immorality 101.

    Its ridiculous!

  3. dfnslblty
    September 2, 2016 at 17:39

    ‘…Textron said “The current political environment has made it difficult to obtain” approvals from Congress and the administration.’

    NB: “…made it difficult…”, rather than MPOSSIBLE!

    Psychopathique weaseling hypocrites in the government and in the killing industries.

    Indict & Impeach – starting with potus and descending to k street, wall street, et al.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    September 2, 2016 at 17:03

    …these attacks…”may amount to war crimes”.

    Yep, and vaginal examinations conducted at traffic stops may amount to rape. Shooting and killing unarmed suspects may amount to police brutality. Beating detainees half to death may amount to torture. Extrajudicial drone killing may amount to murder. Supporting Al Qaida affiliates and providing them with TOW missiles may amount to treason. Taking millions of dollars from corrupt governments and international criminals may be a charitable activity. Questioning official narratives may be delusional conspiracy theory. Turning over public education to a charter-school mullah who subscribes to sharia law may be a cost cutting practice. Staging coups d’etat against sovereign governments may violate the U.N. Charter. Sending special forces and airstrikes into non-hostile nations may violate the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Conducting freelance foreign policy may violate the Logan Act. Providing aid to countries which maintain undeclared nuclear arsenals may violate the Symington Amendment. Rectal feeding may be a medical procedure. But, until we get some clarification on these ambiguous issues, they will remain in that grey area where the prudent and cautious American electorate defers to the wisdom of our well-informed elected representatives. Someday, our legal system may be able to determine exactly what is and what isn’t legal. Speaking of well-informed elected representatives, Liz Cheney and Debbie Wasserman Schultz just won their respective primaries. What could possibly go wrong? I was going to point out that the Clinton Foundation would be standing by to remediate some of these issues, but I note that Joe Tedesky beat me to it. Just like him to cut straight to the chase…

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 2, 2016 at 19:54

      I’m proud of you, you said all of that and never once mentioned JFK…who’s your therapist, I may go to that person. Your comment would make a hard hitting commercial.

  5. Christi
    September 2, 2016 at 13:44

    “I think the Saudis have expressed in the last weeks their desire to make certain that they’re acting responsibly, and not endangering civilians.”

    Okay, JK, you’re a civilian, why don’t you go to Yemen, in a little town somewhere, have dinner, and show all of us who think that Saudi Arabia is committing unconscionable war crimes with US involvement, just how safe it is?

  6. Fergus Hashimoto
    September 2, 2016 at 13:33

    I applaud the US Congress for its belated oppositioin to Wahhabi recklessness.
    The next step should be to start smoking out the Saudi front organizartions that flourish in the US, to wit CAIR, ISNA, MSA, etc., all of them hell-bent on Wahhabizing America.

  7. W. R. Knight
    September 2, 2016 at 12:51

    “If there were an Olympics for waging bloody wars, Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition allies would surely win a medal for their relentless bombing of Yemen over the past year and a half…”

    But the US gets the gold.

  8. Annie
    September 2, 2016 at 11:42

    I would hope that many articles that appear on this site that portray Obama as a realist, or doesn’t fully hold him accountable for his hawkish behaviors references this article from time to time. I see this as a real failing on this site.

    • J. D.
      September 2, 2016 at 17:47

      Agreed. But Obama’s support and complicity in what are undoubtedly Saudi war crimes go far beyond the Saudi’s “acceptance of the nuclear deal with Iran.” The United States has been in a military-terrorist alliance with the Saudis since at least 1985, with the creation of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, made possible through the terrorist slush fund laundered in the Al-Yamamah Oil for Arms deal.negotiated between the Saudi and British royal families by Margaret Thatcher and Bindar bin-Sultan. Washington’s support for the Saudis has continued even through the recent release of the formerly classified 28 pages of the 911 Joint Congressional Inquiry Report,, documenting the Saudi role in the mass murder of Americans in that atrocity. Both the Bush/Cheney and Obama administrations, with the complicity of both the FBI and CIA, have suppressed investigations into the Saudi role and Obama has even threatened to veto the JASTA act, should it pass Congress.. Had the truth about the Anglo-Saudi role been published in late 2002 there would have been no wars in Iraq, Libya,Syria or Yemen. But it’s not too late.

  9. Mahatma
    September 2, 2016 at 11:35

    Regrettably, nothing is likely to come of opposition to the Saud family. No doubt the richest and most powerful family in the world, the lord of the feudal lords does as it pleases. The US led Neoliberal Empire of the Exceptionals has its various components the Saud family being one pillar of the Empire – it is not a “partner” or an “ally” it is part of the body of the Empire.

    There can be little doubt that the trillions the Saud family has taken in by selling oil at inflated prices to the West sense WWII has been deployed strategically around the globe and they have the power to manipulate economies and cause untold suffering should anyone or any country threaten their interests.

    The Empire of the Exceptionals is not a democracy or anything even close, these low level apparatchiks have no power.

  10. Joe Tedesky
    September 2, 2016 at 10:29

    Tell the Saudi’s not to worry, the Clinton Foundation is just around the bend.

    • September 2, 2016 at 12:45

      That’s what it’s all about: in Syria too. Hold out till Killary takes over.

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