The inquiry could unearth uncomfortable facts about US-Saudi coordination in the two-year conflict in Yemen.
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding that the Trump administration provide a detailed account of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, including instances of potential war crimes, before approving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of precision-guided bombs, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The request, detailed in a letter signed by 31 members of the House of Representatives, could push the United States to disclose sensitive details about when and where the Saudi military ignored Washington’s instructions to avoid targets that resulted in civilian casualties.
Congress must “ensure that the [Royal Saudi Air Force] has the ability to avoid civilian casualties before the U.S. sells them any additional air-to-ground munitions,” said a draft of the letter addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The demand follows a decision by the State Department to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia as the Trump administration beefs up support for the Arab monarchy’s military campaign in Yemen.
The White House is expected to announce final approval for the arms sale in the coming weeks, a move that would then trigger a formal notification to Congress and allow lawmakers to review the transfer.
The Obama administration suspended the sale of about $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems at the end of last year amid recurring allegations of Saudi-led bombings of schools, markets, clinics and factories in Yemen. Lawmakers in both parties have expressed skepticism of US involvement in a war that the UN says has cost more than 10,000 lives, displaced millions and pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine.
Last month marked the two year anniversary of Riyadh’s entry into the conflict. The Saudi-backed coalition aims to oust Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and restore the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but critics say the campaign has created a humanitarian catastrophe and strengthened the position of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Top Trump officials view support for the Saudi campaign as one of the easier ways of making good on the president’s promise to roll back Iranian influence in the region. Proponents of the sale also say precision munitions are preferable to Riyadh using “dumb bombs” that could cause more bloodshed.
Critics argue that the US is sending mixed signals by pressuring Riyadh to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict while supplying more bombs for the campaign.
The co-authors of the letter, Democrat Rep. Ted Lieu and Republican Rep. Walter Jones, want information about the “no-strike lists” the US provides to Riyadh in order to avoid civilian casualties. The request asks for any known “violations of the lists” and “details on the no-strike lists, including the number and types of targets, the dates of delivery of each distinct list to the Coalition, and the frequency with which the overall list is updated.” Both lawmakers have been deeply skeptical of the two-year conflict in Yemen.
An international aid worker who focuses on the war-torn country said the Pentagon’s response to the no-strike list question “could be pretty juicy.”
“There is at least one documented incident in which the kingdom targeted a key bridge on a US no-strike list and hit it on two successive days after an argument with DOD,” said the worker, who was not authorized to speak for his organization.
The bridge in question connects the port of Hodeidah to the capital of Sanaa and is a primary supply route for food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian aid.
In general, the US lists include critical infrastructure that Washington believes will be necessary for Yemen to recover after the war.
Besides providing no-strike lists, the Pentagon has also given the Saudi campaign aerial refueling and logistical support.
If the Trump administration agrees to brief lawmakers on instances where Riyadh ignored Washington’s warnings about civilian targets, the information won’t necessarily become public, a congressional aide said. “It’s likely this information would be revealed in a classified facility and lawmakers would be prohibited from making it public,” said the aide.
The State Department declined to comment on the draft letter before it is formally submitted to the agency. Congressional aides are still seeking additional signatures for the list of 31 lawmakers.