Exclusive: White House Blocks Transfer of Cluster Bombs to Saudi Arabia

Riyadh’s air war in Yemen has killed and injured hundreds of civilians. Washington is finally trying to stem the carnage.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04:  U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as King Salman bin Abd alAziz of Saudi Arabia speaks during a  bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The President and the King were expected to discuss various issues including joint security and counter-terrorism efforts (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04: U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as King Salman bin Abd alAziz of Saudi Arabia speaks during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The President and the King were expected to discuss various issues including joint security and counter-terrorism efforts (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Frustrated by a growing death toll, the White House has quietly placed a hold on the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia as the Sunni ally continues its bloody war on Shiite rebels in Yemen, U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. It’s the first concrete step the United States has taken to demonstrate its unease with the Saudi bombing campaign that human rights activists say has killed and injured hundreds of Yemeni civilians, many of them children.

The move follows rising criticism by U.S. lawmakers of America’s support for the oil-rich monarchy in the year-long conflict. Washington has sold weapons and provided training, targeting information, and aerial refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. It has also sold Riyadh millions of dollars’ worth of cluster bombs in recent years.

Asked about the hold on the shipments, a senior U.S. official cited reports that the Saudi-led coalition used cluster bombs “in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present or in the vicinity.”

“We take such concerns seriously and are seeking additional information,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The hold applies to CBU-105 cluster bombs manufactured by the U.S.-based firm Textron Systems, a subsidiary of Textron. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Saudi-led forces have dropped CBU-105 munitions in multiple locations across Yemen, including in the towns of Amar, Sanhan, Amran, and the Hayma port.

Cluster bombs contain bomblets that scatter widely and kill or injure indiscriminately. Sometimes bomblets fail to detonate immediately and can kill civilians months or even years later. The weapons were banned in a 2008 international treaty that arms sales giants, including the United States and Russia, refused to sign.

Responding to humanitarian concerns, the United States has scaled back exports of cluster bombs and demanded changes in the munitions’ performance, such as banning those with a higher fraction of submunitions that do not explode on impact. A 2009 U.S. law prohibits exporting cluster bombs that have a failure rate of above 1 percent. It also says the weapons cannot be used “where civilians are known to be present” and only against “clearly defined military targets.”

The CBU-105 sensor-fuzed weapon has been touted for meeting the 1 percent requirement. But a February report by Human Rights Watch cited evidence the weapon was used in two attacks in Yemen, and had a failure rate that exceeded 1 percent. “The evidence raises serious questions about compliance with U.S. cluster munition policy and export rules,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch.

The group has investigated at least five attacks in Yemen involving CBU-105s in four governorates since the war began. In December, the group documented an attack on the Yemeni port of Hodaida that injured a woman and two children in their homes. Two other civilians were wounded in a CBU-105 attack near Amar village, according to local residents and medical staff interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The Obama administration has issued several statements of “concern” about the violence in Yemen, but has yet to formally announce any reduction in military or tactical support for the coalition. A U.S. official touted the fact that Washington’s “engagement” with Riyadh has led to the kingdom’s commitment to an inquiry into civilian deaths in the conflict.

“Saudi Arabia has also pledged to create an investigations commission to evaluate military targeting, ensure the protection of civilians, and investigate incidents of civilian harm during the conflict in Yemen,” said the U.S. official. “This is a vital step towards protecting civilians, and also avoiding future civilian harm.”

While praising the decision to hold the sale of cluster bombs to Riyadh, prominent humanitarian groups told FP it’s not enough.

“Any step toward ending the production and sale of cluster bomb munitions by the United States government is a good thing, but much much more needs to be done,” said Sunjeev Bery, advocacy director at Amnesty International. He said his organization pushed — unsuccessfully — to block a $1.3 billion sale of smart bombs to Riyadh that the United States approved in November.

It remains unclear if the Obama administration’s hold will affect a tranche of cluster bombs poised for shipment to Saudi Arabia, or simply all future requests. The United States concluded a contract for the manufacture of 1,300 CBU-105 weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2013. The final shipment of such weapons can take years to complete, but U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to clarify if the order’s final tranche was delivered.

“Textron Systems does not comment on delivery dates with our customers,” said Matthew Colpitts, a spokesman for Textron Systems.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Since March 2015, when Saudi Arabia launched its military campaign against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, at least 6,200 people have died, and nearly 3 million have been displaced from their homes. The conflict is often viewed as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government in exile, and Iran, which has provided some support to Houthi rebels, who are part of a Shiite sect. Although aid workers have stressed Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation, counterterrorism experts note the protracted fighting and chaos has allowed al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian peninsula to strengthen its position in the country.

Though the conflict is in its second year, it is only beginning to be eyed skeptically by U.S. lawmakers.

A proposed defense spending bill approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee calls for creating a capital fund to expedite the supply of precision guided bombs for “partner and allied forces.”

Although the bill does not specify which allies lawmakers have in mind, human rights groups and at least one senator are concerned that the provision could be used to make it easier to deliver more sophisticated bombs to Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) proposed an amendment Thursday to strip the language out of the defense bill on grounds the provision could enable Saudi Arabia to expand its air campaign despite the mounting civilian toll, his office said.

The senator was also concerned that the provision in the defense bill could make it easier for an administration to involve the United States “in other foreign entanglements with limited oversight,” Murphy spokesman Chris Harris told FP.

Murphy on Thursday also proposed another amendment, along with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, to impose stricter conditions on future sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia. The proposal would require the U.S. president to certify that the Saudi government is demonstrating an effort to target terrorist groups, minimize harm to civilians, and enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance before Congress can consider selling or transferring air-to-ground munitions.

“Saudi Arabia is an important partner, but the United States needs to recognize when a friend’s actions are not in our national interest,” Murphy said in a statement.

“There’s no evidence that the Saudi campaign in Yemen, enabled by the United States, advances our interests or makes us any safer,” Murphy said. “In fact, the civil war in Yemen is prolonging human suffering and playing into the hands of the same terrorist groups that are working to attack Americans.”

The United Nations is trying to broker a peace deal between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and Houthi rebels.

On Thursday, after a series of delays and theatrics, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said peace talks were back on track in the host city of Kuwait after being suspended last week.

Ahmed said both sides indicated willingness to hold talks to reach a resolution, though similar promises have been made in the past.

FP‘s chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Getty Images