People gather at a building destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in the northwestern city of Amran, Yemen, on September 8, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah
People gather at a building destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in the northwestern city of Amran, Yemen, on September 8, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah

Obama Administration’s $1.15 billion arms sales offer to Saudi Arabia has shocked a bipartisan group of 64 lawmakers who are concerned about rising civilian casualties in the war in Yemen where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting Iran-allied Houthi rebels. They want the US to withdraw support to Riyadh which is intentionally targeting civilians or deliberately indifferent in executing its military operations.

Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) is spearheading a legislation to restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Ted Lieu
Congressman Ted Lieu – Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Joined by a bipartisan group of 64 lawmakers, Congressman Lieu forwarded a letter to the Obama administration to postpone the new $1.15 billion arms package to Riyadh. The package includes 153 Abrams tanks, 20 Hercules armored vehicles, 153 M2 .50-caliber machine guns and 266 7.62mm M240 machine guns, and the notorious cluster bombs that have been banned by 119 countries.

Despite increasing reports over the past year documenting repeated targeting of Yemeni civilians by Saudi warplanes, with new UN estimates that over 10,000 people have been killed, the Obama administration still intends to resupply Riyadh’s arsenal.

This has galvanized members of Congress, especially Rep. Lieu, to “stop the madness” of US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

US complicit in war crimes

 In the letter, Rep. Lieu, a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and former Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer, condemned the US-Saudi campaign.[1]

“The actions of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen are as reprehensible as they are illegal.  The multiple, repeated airstrikes on civilians look like war crimes.  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.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Lieu warned that “By aiding a coalition that is killing civilians, the US is going to create another generation of people who hate the US and who are going to want to do very bad things to us.”[2]


Indeed, if US lawmakers already feel disdain and anger towards this deal, the Yemenis would surely be outraged by US sponsoring the devastation of their country.[3]

child-drinks pipewater

According to Paul O’Brien of Oxfam, due to US support of the Saudis, many Yemenis call this the “Saudi-American” military campaign, not just a Saudi campaign.[4]

In September 2015 and March 2016 when Rep Lieu asked the White House to clarify why helping the Saudi bombing campaign is in US national security interest and how it will stop Riyadh from targeting civilians, the administration pointed out that US support for intelligence and targeting would help reduce the number of civilians killed.

The Congressman in response slammed this reasoning in a Huffington Post interview. “The notion that if we’re assisting this Saudi-led coalition, that they’re going to commit 27 war crimes instead of 34 war crimes to me is not a persuasive argument…We should not be assisting a coalition that’s committing any war crimes.”

Lieu continued, “Under the law of war, if an individual or entity aids and abets someone who is committing war crimes, then that person can also be liable for war crimes, so that is something that the administration needs to take into account.”

Nonetheless, while lawmakers are attempting to stop further US support for Saudi war crimes and human rights violations in Yemen, Washington is partnering with Riyadh as self-appointed human rights defenders in Syria.

‘Defender’ in Syria and violator in Yemen of human rights

 As the Pentagon is reducing its military staff in Riyadh in an attempt to distance itself from war crimes in Yemen, regime change enthusiasts in the Beltway are pushing for increasing military intervention in Syria and forging closer cooperation with Riyadh to defend the people from government war crimes of bombing civilians.[5]

However, supporting jihadists aligned with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda that commit war crimes is a crime in itself. As Nabih Bulos portrayed in the Los Angeles Times, many Syrians in West Aleppo have been killed by persistent rebel shelling of densely populated areas. The majority of Aleppo’s population—1.4 million people—live in government-held territory.

Targeting civilians is a violation of the law of armed conflict whether by the Syrian government or Saudi government in Yemen, yet western media has largely ignored the killing of Syrian civilians by US/Saudi-backed jihadists. Moreover, in Yemen the US and Saudis are foreign actors bombing a sovereign country, while in Syria a sovereign government is protecting its land and population from foreign-backed jihadists from over 100 different countries, prompting even Syrian women to now take up arms for self-defense.

The hypocrisy of US sponsoring a foreign “revolution” by utilizing Islamic extremists to conduct “R2P” regime change operations is further underscored by Anthony Lloyd in a new Times of London article. In 2014, he was kidnapped and tortured by al-Qaeda linked Hakim Abu Jamal, who is now a sub commander of a CIA-vetted rebel group.

This insidious policy has enraged some Syrian activists who decried “how a man like Hakim, with such a well-known criminal past, gets held up by America now as some kind of new hero, getting money and receiving airstrike support, while all the honest people from Tal Rafat live as refugees without any outside help in Turkey.”

Amnesty International finds it less surprising as they’ve documented war crimes of abductions, torture, summary killings, and shelling of civilian areas by US-backed rebel groups.

“There should be a human rights component to the vetting,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty Syria researcher. “Eligibility [for support] should not just be a matter of who is ready to fight against Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front].”[6]

However, Semaan and the 64 US lawmakers are apt to be disappointed, as it does not appear US or Saudi Arabia put much stock in human rights these days.


[2] Ben Norton, “A Congressman Campaigns to ‘Stop the Madness’ of U.S. Support for Saudi Bombing in Yemen”, The Intercept, August 22, 2016.



[5] Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Rebels”, New York Times, January 23, 2016.


Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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