One-point-two billion dollars in U.S. arms are set to be approved for sale to Saudi Arabia this week. The arms are intended for use in the ongoing Saudi military intervention in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a campaign of airstrikes against Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia, which claims to have run out of guided weapons, argues that the arms sale, which includes over 13,000 units of guided munitions, will help to decrease civilian casualties in the conflict. Groups such as Human Rights Watch, however, are calling for the sale to be blocked by Congress, claiming that Saudi forces have been conducting this conflict for questionable reasons and without proper reference to the laws of war. The current estimate for civilian casualties inflicted so far is 2,600.
The arms sale to Saudi Arabia was approved by the U.S. State Department back in November, with Congress being informed on Nov. 13. Congress had 30 days from that date to block the sale. According to NPR, it is unlikely that the arms sale will be blocked, as Congress has already undertaken a careful review of the proposal and has yet to show any significant opposition. With less than a week to go until the 30-day deadline is up, all indications are that the sale will be approved. There is no indication as yet, though, of how or when the weapons will be delivered to Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni conflict has been overshadowed by the fight with Daesh in Syria and Northern Iraq. While the Western-backed coalitions have been busy with Daesh, Saudi Arabia has been fighting a vicious war of attrition in Yemen ever since Houthi rebels ousted the Saudi-backed government in March. The rebels, reportedly backed by Iran, are seen by Saudi Arabia as a proxy for the furtherance of Shia and Iranian interests in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have formed a coalition to drive the Houthis out of the capital, Sanaa. They have been accused of doing this in a potentially illegal manner, with Human Rights Watch claiming that it is possible that Saudi Arabia is in breach of various aspects of the law of war, including an article dealing with efforts to minimize civilian casualties.
The Saudi coalition claims to have created investigative bodies to investigate potentially illegal airstrikes, but Human Rights Watch is concerned that there has been no access granted to independent assessors. They also claim to have no official knowledge of any of these investigations, which leads them to believe that any potential inquiry may be either non-existent or seriously compromised. The Independent has reported that Human Rights Watch official John Stork is arguing that until this matter is cleared up, a U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia might inadvertently render the U.S. complicit in war crimes.
“Until Saudi Arabia investigates apparently unlawful strikes by coalition warplanes and takes appropriate action, the U.S. should not be supplying them more bombs.”
Most analysts agree that the provision of guided weapons will, in fact, reduce the number of civilian casualties, but they caution that the nature and conduct of what is effectively a counter-insurgency operation is such that civilian casualties are impossible to avoid completely. Questions have also been asked about how appropriate it is for the U.S. to supply arms for what is effectively a proxy war against Iran. President Obama, however, has endorsed the sale, saying that its aim is to honor U.S. commitments to the strengthening of friendly Gulf States. The weapons sale will include some of the most advanced munitions made by the U.S., including a type of GPS-capable guided ordnance known as JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions).
Numerous Human Rights Groups have been attempting to draw public attention to the conflict in Yemen for months. The Red Cross has labeled the conflict “a humanitarian disaster,” while the Human Rights Watch has been accusing Saudi Arabia of potentially covering up war crimes.
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