Congressional Republicans are squaring off against the Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, which lawmakers say will embolden Riyadh with enough firepower to continue its brutal intervention in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.
The deal would provide Saudi forces with over 150 M1A2 Abrams battle tanks, along with supplies of ammunition and various shipments of small arms, to replace equipment lost in the Yemen war, according to the White House.
Administration officials notified Congress of the pending sale in August. Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift and confrontational.
More than 60 House Republicans and Democrats sent a letter to President Obama shortly after the announcement, demanding that the White House provide details on how the administration planned to pressure Riyadh to limit civilian casualties in Yemen.
Over 6,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more wounded in fighting over the past year between Yemeni government forces and Houthi rebels.
The Houthi, a Sunni separatist sect in the country, forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in 2015. Since then, government factions loyal to the deposed Hadi regime, backed primarily by Saudi forces, have been battling Houthi forces for control.
But Riyadh’s heavy-handed strategy to defeat the Houthis has generated outrage among human rights groups. A devastating aerial campaign has reportedly included the use of cluster bombs, which have been banned under international rules of war.
“As the humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate, anti-American sentiment is spiraling as the local population blames the U.S. for the thousands of civilian deaths resulting from the Saudis’ bombing campaign,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement.
“This will come back to haunt us,” he said. “It’s time that we put real conditions on our military aid to the Saudis.”
Mr. Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, are pushing legislation to block the weapons sale to the Saudis until the Obama administration puts such conditions in place.
Their legislation was introduced late last week. But with the legislative calendar quickly coming to a close, it remains unclear whether the bill can get enough traction before the end of the congressional session.
Administration officials have defended Riyadh as a stalwart and responsible partner in Yemen and other ongoing counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the region.
“U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi officials as well as other coalition members on the importance of mitigating harm. As part of this, we’ve also encouraged them to do their utmost to avoid harm to entities protected by international law,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said after Saudi warplanes mistakenly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in southern Yemen in April.
American and Saudi military and intelligence officials have routinely cooperated in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen specifically, which is home to al Qaeda’s strongest terrorist cell in the region.
Many regional terrorism analysts see al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the group’s best-financed and most-dangerous faction in the world.
Pressuring Riyadh to rein in its operations in Yemen, and tying that effort to the pending weapons sales, could endanger future counterterrorism cooperation efforts, one regional security analyst said.
“The debate over the deal is about more than just tanks,” said William Hartung, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
“It is about whether the United States will continue to fuel the Saudi war effort without demanding, at a minimum, that the Saudis demonstrate a serious commitment to preventing civilian casualties,” he added in an analysis paper released Wednesday.
But that demand could further disable U.S.-led efforts to curtail al Qaeda’s cell in Yemen, as well as the growing Islamic State influence in the country, at a time when American intelligence assets in the region are virtually nil.
American intelligence agencies have essentially been flying blind in Yemen, with precious few options to monitor al Qaeda or other terrorist activities on the ground, National Counterterrorism Center chief Nick Rasmussen said Wednesday.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have been “struggling to keep up” with the group’s activities in the region since the withdrawal of all official U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the wake of Mr. Hadi’s ouster.
Attempts to track al Qaeda’s movements in Yemen remotely via unmanned surveillance aircraft and satellites have provided an adequate picture of the group’s operations, he said. Information gleaned from such assets have led to several successful strikes against the Yemen cell.
American warplanes executed a round of airstrikes in the country beginning Aug. 24, officials from U.S. Central Command said Tuesday. Command officials said a total of 13 al Qaeda operatives were killed during the three strikes carried out over the 11-day period in Yemen.
In May, U.S. drones and warplanes carried out four strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen over two weeks, ending with 10 confirmed kills, said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Pentagon leaders in June decided to extend the deployment of a small special operations team in the country, which had been deployed to back government forces battling al Qaeda in April, to help close the U.S. intelligence gap in Yemen.
But aside from those measures, Washington has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the country as a means to enforce U.S. interests there. Part of that effort is to continue providing weapons and equipment to Riyadh’s forces.
The cost of that alliance in Yemen, to congressional lawmakers and others, has been too high for far too long.
“Saudi Arabia is an important partner, but we must acknowledge when a friend’s actions aren’t in our national interest,” Mr. Murphy said.