Flexing New Powers, Congress to Review Arms Shipments to Saudi Arabia

Concerned about the rising death toll in Yemen, a Senate panel wants more oversight of $1.29 billion in U.S. weapons shipments to Riyadh.

SANAA, YEMEN - MAY 11: Fire and smoke rise after Saudi-led warplanes bombed weapon storage sites held by Shiite Houthi militant group in Yemeni capital Sanaa on May 11, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MAY 11: Fire and smoke rise after Saudi-led warplanes bombed weapon storage sites held by Shiite Houthi militant group in Yemeni capital Sanaa on May 11, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

For the first time, and against a rising death toll in Yemen, the U.S. Senate is using new oversight powers to track American weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Foreign Policy has learned.

The move signals a growing unease on Capitol Hill with the Saudi-led war effort against Houthi rebels in Yemen, a conflict the United Nations says has killed more than 5,700 people and has forced another 2.3 million from their homes.

The oversight effort, initiated by the two senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, follows an intense lobbying push by U.S.-based humanitarian aid groups opposed to the pending sale of nearly $1.3 billion in bombs and other warheads to Riyadh. The State Department approved the tentative sale last month and it is expected to clear congressional hurdles this week.

The organizations leading the charge against the weapons sale include Oxfam America, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights Watch. The groups accuse Washington of being complicit in what they call Saudi Arabia’s “indiscriminate” airstrikes in Yemen where about 2,500 civilians have died in the fighting.

“Arms transfers give a green light to indefinite military intervention, substantially relieving the pressure on the coalition and the government of Yemen to agree to a ceasefire,” Oxfam America senior humanitarian policy adviser Scott Paul told Foreign Policy.

The Senate panel’s new power flex will not stop the weapons shipments. But they force more oversight of arms sales even as lawmakers continue debate on whether — and how aggressively — to rein in Riyadh.

Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Ed Markey of Massachusetts have repeatedly raised concerns about “gross violations of human rights” throughout Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen, which began last March.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) continues to support the Saudi-led operation against the Houthis, which he believes will help “end the conflict, facilitate humanitarian relief, and restore the legitimate government of Yemen,” an aide told FP.

Even so, both Corker and Cardin requested that the committee be notified of future weapons shipments, according to their aides. That means the State Department is on order to notify Congress at least 30 days before each new weapons shipment to Saudi Arabia.

“By invoking this new authority, the Senate committee is now saying that we want to monitor each shipment of the ordnance — and it’s a lot of ordnance,” said another congressional aide. “This will be the first time it’s used.”

The Saudi-led air campaign — which is bolstered by the United States, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries — began after Shiite Houthi rebels from northern Yemen seized the capital of Sanaa last year and ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Sunni.

Riyadh and its Gulf allies view the Houthi insurgents as an instrument of Iran, despite the rebels’ longtime presence in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, an overwhelmingly Sunni kingdom, initially promised a quick military operation aimed at reinstalling Yemen’s “legitimate” government. But the war has dragged on, stoking a humanitarian disaster and destroying Yemen’s infrastructure.

Next week, the conflict’s rival parties will meet in Switzerland for U.N.-mediated peace talks. On Monday, Hadi announced the possibility of a seven-day ceasefire if the Houthis agree to it; similar Saudi proposals this year have failed to stem the violence.

The U.S. government’s proposed weapons deal with Saudi Arabia includes some of the most advanced precision weapons systems in the world. It includes an estimated 18,000 bombs and 1,500 other pieces of artillery, like the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, which are capable of bringing down huge, fortified buildings in a single strike. These so-called “smart munitions” are equipped with GPS guidance systems, which could reduce the risk of indiscriminate attacks.

A State Department official defended the arms sales Thursday, calling it part of U.S. efforts to maintain security and diplomatic ties “that are essential to promoting peace and stability in the Gulf region.”

Yet the State official also acknowledged the looming humanitarian catastrophe, urging all parties to attend the Switzerland talks next week and agree to a ceasefire that he said would “bring immediate relief to the people of Yemen” — including food, water, medicine, and fuel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

But previous diplomatic efforts have fallen short, and aid groups said there’s little reason for forces on either side to stand down so long as Saudi Arabia continues to receive weapons from allies like the United States.

“Providing the Saudis with more bombs under these circumstances is a recipe for greater civilian deaths, for which the U.S. will be partially responsible,” said Joe Stork, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

By ordering a stricter review of arms sales, the Senate committee hopes to gain a better sense of how effective the Saudi-led air campaign has been. So far, congressional officials have been disappointed in how little information the Obama administration has provided on Riyadh’s “burn rate” — how quickly it goes through its weapons stockpile.

One congressional aide said the new oversight would help, even if it “is not going to give us a good fix on the human rights issues.”

“There’s a lot of ordnance going over there for the prosecution of the Yemen air campaign, and the Foreign Relations Committee wants to know what’s getting shipped and when,” the congressional aide added. “It’s a necessary part of coming to a better assessment as this air campaign continues.”

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