WASHINGTON -- The United States is terminating some sales of military arms to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the killing of civilians in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday, while ramping up support for Saudi’s border defenses and other intelligence-sharing.
The decision to pull back planned sales of precision-guided munitions stems from a review ordered by the White House in October following the bombing of a funeral hall in Yemen that killed more than 140 people, thrusting longstanding concerns about civilian casualties into the spotlight. Human rights groups have said the Saudis have targeted houses, hospitals and schools, and have pressured the U.S. to withdraw support for the Saudi coalition, which is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In addition to halting the sales of munitions, the Obama administration is curbing some intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia that could be used in ways that would lead to civilian casualties, the official said, while declining to provide details. The U.S. also is looking to “refocus” the training it conducts for Saudi Arabia’s air force to address U.S. concerns about how the Saudis choose their targets.
The Pentagon, the State Department and other U.S. agencies were involved in the retooling of support for Saudi Arabia, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity. The official said the decision reflected deep concerns about Saudi targeting methods and the desire to show that U.S. military aid is not a “blank check.”
Other U.S. support for Saudi’s coalition will continue unimpeded, including refueling of coalition aircraft by the U.S. military. And the U.S. is increasing the amount of information and analysis it shares with Saudi Arabia about threats to the Saudi border, reflecting Saudi concerns about extremists crossing over the border from Yemen to launch attacks inside Saudi Arabia.
Other military sales to Saudi Arabia are expected to continue unimpeded, such as $3.5 billion worth of Chinook cargo helicopters and equipment that the State Department approved last week. That aid was intended to bolster the kingdom’s “homeland defense and deter regional threats,” a nod to Saudi concerns about attacks Houthi rebels have launched across the border in Saudi Arabia.
The mixed approach - scaling back support for the Saudis in some areas while increasing it in others - illustrated the complex military relationship between the two countries and Washington’s desire not to abandon the Saudis wholesale in Yemen. While the U.S. has been dismayed by the brash way the Saudis have prosecuted the conflict, the Obama administration has sought to keep the pressure on the Houthis, whose failure to abide by previous cease-fire deals has vexed diplomatic efforts to reduce violence.
The Saudis are leading a coalition of mostly Arab countries fighting on behalf of an internationally recognized government in Yemen. The conflict began in March 2015 and has killed roughly 9,000 people, creating a humanitarian crisis and famine conditions in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation.
Fueling U.S. concerns about the Shiite Houthis are their ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival for regional influence in the Middle East. The U.S. accuses Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis, with the U.S. Navy saying it has intercepted several boats carrying Iranian weapons suspected of being mid-journey to Yemen. Iran has said it supports the Houthis but has denied arming them.
In October, the U.S. involved itself even further in the conflict when the U.S. military launched missile strikes on Houthi-controlled radar sites, in what the U.S. called self-defense following Houthi missile fire on U.S. Navy ships. Previously, American military strikes in Yemen had been limited to drone strikes against the local al-Qaida affiliate.
Yet some lawmakers and human rights groups have suggested the U.S. could be considered complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen because of its support for the coalition, which has included advice on airstrikes.