President Barack Obama’s administration has cancelled the transfer of some military support to ally Saudi Arabia, because of concerns over widespread civilian death toll from the Kingdom’s campaign 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, officials said, though they declined to offer 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 decision reflects deep frustration within President Barack Obama’s government over Saudi Arabia’s practices in Yemen’s 20-month-old war, which has killed more than 10,000 people and sparked humanitarian crises, including chronic food shortages, in the poorest country in the Middle East.
The White House launched the high-level review of U.S. assistance in October, following a Saudi airstrike that killed more than 140 people at a Yemeni funeral. The incident, one of a series of apparent Saudi attacks on civilian targets in the Kingdom’s war against Shiite Houthi rebels, prompted the White House to warn that U.S. aid was not a blank check.
“We have made clear that US security cooperation is not a blank check,” a senior administration said.
“Consequently, we have decided to not move forward with some foreign military sales (FMS) cases for munitions,” the source added. “This reflects our continued, strong concerns with the flaws in the coalition’s targeting practices and overall prosecution of the air campaign in Yemen.”
This could further strain ties between Washington and Riyadh in the remaining days of Obama’s administration and put the question of Saudi-U.S. relations squarely before the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20.
At the same time, U.S. officials will continue or even increase other kinds of intelligence sharing, on targets such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or when the United States sees legitimate Saudi concerns about Houthi aggression. The rebels, suspected of ties to Iran, have repeatedly launched attacks across the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Even as the White House decided to forego one weapons sale, it has moved forward with others. Just last week, the State Department informed Congress of the administration’s intent to sell 48 Chinook cargo helicopters to Saudi Arabia in a deal worth $3.5 billion. Officials stressed those helicopters were intended for use within Saudi Arabia rather than in neighboring Yemen.
The Saudis are leading a coalition of mostly Arab countries fighting on behalf of an internationally recognized government in Yemen, against Houthi rebels that the U.S. says are receiving arms supplies from Iran. The conflict began in March 2015 and has killed roughly 10,000 people, creating a humanitarian crisis and famine conditions in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation.