The Cable

Saudi Arms Sale Hits Possible Senate Roadblock

Some lawmakers are fed up with Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen and oppose plans to sell Riyadh more U.S.-made munitions.

Smoke billows following an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on an army arms depot, now under Shiite Huthi rebel control on May 22, 2015 east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led coalition has waged an air campaign against the Huthis since March 26 in an effort to restore the authority of Hadi, who has fled to Riyadh with members of his government.  AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows following an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on an army arms depot, now under Shiite Huthi rebel control on May 22, 2015 east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led coalition has waged an air campaign against the Huthis since March 26 in an effort to restore the authority of Hadi, who has fled to Riyadh with members of his government. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A proposed sale of $500 million worth of U.S. precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia is coming under growing scrutiny from Congress, with lawmakers poised to vote on a resolution Thursday that could prove embarrassing for Riyadh and the Donald Trump administration.

The planned sale of munitions would replenish the kingdom’s depleted stocks after two years of daily bombing raids by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But human rights groups say the coalition’s forces have carried out a reckless air war in Yemen that has inflicted a heavy toll on civilians, and an increasing number of lawmakers are losing patience with Riyadh as a result.

Saudi Arabia has sought to lobby senators to support more weapons sales but in a setback for Riyadh, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Thursday he would vote in favor of a resolution rejecting the arms deal.

Cardin accused the Trump administration of failing to throw its weight behind diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Yemen.

“The administration’s decision to proceed with the sale of precision-guided munitions, absent leadership to push all parties toward a political process for a negotiated settlement, including Saudi Arabia, sends the absolutely wrong signal to our partners and our adversaries,” Cardin said in a statement.

The joint resolution condemning the arms sale is due to come up for a vote on Thursday and was sponsored by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and two Democrats, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. Although it’s unlikely the resolution will secure a majority sufficient to block the sale, a significant number of senators castigating Saudi Arabia’s air campaign will send an uncomfortable message to Riyadh.

The two-year-old war pits Houthi rebels against forces loyal to ousted president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and Saudi Arabia sees it as a wider regional struggle against Iran. The Houthis are backed by Shiite-ruled Iran, and Hadi’s troops are supported by Sunni Gulf allies.

The proposed U.S. sale is just a small part of $110 billion in outstanding arms deal the Trump administration is looking to push through Congress at a time when the White House is looking to repair relations with Riyadh and align Washington with Sunni states against Iran.

The Obama White House last year put a hold on shipments of thousands of precision-guided munitions and cluster bombs for Riyadh, and pulled back some intelligence support, over concerns about botched targeting in Saudi air strikes. The bombing of a crowded funeral ceremony by coalition aircraft on Oct. 8 last year in the capital Sanaa left more than 100 dead and hundreds wounded. According to an independent survey issued in September 2016, more than one-third of all Saudi-led air raids hit civilian targets such as schools, hospitals and mosques.

The Obama administration imposed conditions on the arms sales to try to encourage the Saudis to take more precautions to avoid killing civilians in air raids. “There were some signs of progress but not as much as we wanted,” said Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses, who advised U.S. officials and commanders in the Middle East.

But the conditions were dropped since President Donald Trump took office. “The new administration came in and just said we’re going to give it to you,” Lewis told FP.

Sen. Murphy, one of the resolution’s sponsors who has long sought stricter vetting of Washington’s arms sales to Riyadh, told a teleconference that “the Saudis will tell you they need these precision guided munitions” to more effectively target Houthi rebels, but “they’re not telling the truth.” Saudi jets are already using U.S.-made precision munitions, and have a track record of hitting hospitals and other civilian sites, he said.

The Saudis are “trying to starve the Yemenis to the negotiating table,” said Murphy, citing widespread food shortages.

About seven million Yemenis are already suffering from acute malnutrition, creating conditions under which a child under five dies every 10 minutes, according to U.N. officials. Murphy said he is “increasingly worried that the United States is participating in the creation of a famine.”

Human Rights Watch has recorded what it says are 81 unlawful attacks against civilians by the Saudi-led coalition, and 23 U.S. weapons have been identified as having been involved in those air strikes.

The Senate vote comes after Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Trump when he visited the kingdom last month. Trump made clear in his remarks in Saudi Arabia that he was breaking with the policies of former President Obama, whose diplomatic overtures to Tehran infuriated Riyadh and other Sunni Gulf states.

Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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