The State Department has approved a $1.29 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which includes as many as 13,000 precision guided weapons or smart bombs. The sale comes as Human Rights Watch charges that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen "have indiscriminately killed and injured civilians."
Congress was notified of the sale on Nov. 13 and has 30 days to block the deal — unlikely because congressional staffers have already carefully reviewed the sale. It now appears set to go through this week as part of the Obama administration's pledge to boost military support for Gulf states, after negotiating a nuclear deal with regional rival Iran.
A Saudi-led coalition launched an air war in Yemen in March. The Saudi royals pledged a quick victory after Houthi rebels seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and ousted the Saudi-backed government.
For the Saudis and Gulf allies, the Houthis, supported by Iran, are a proxy for Iranian expansion in the region. The Saudis have vowed to counter Iran. But the war has dragged on, devastating Yemen and the country's fragile infrastructure, with more than 2,000 civilians killed and more than 5,000 injured.
"We used precision bombs in the beginning, but the stocks dwindled and we got no resupply," complained a Saudi businessman with links to the royal family. He asked to withhold his name so he could speak about a sensitive subject. "We know we have a problem, but we must prosecute the war."
For months, Saudi officials asked the State Department to approve the current sale, according to Saudi and Western sources in Riyadh. With dwindling supplies, the Royal Saudi Air Force has to rely on unguided weapons or "dumb" bombs. Experts say this increases the chances that more civilians will be killed.
"You can imagine them saying to everybody that is criticizing them, 'Look, if we have better weapons, there will be less casualties,' " says Ford M. Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was in Riyadh this week. "I think that is probably correct, but I think the whole issue of civilian casualties is not one you are going to eradicate."
Human Rights Watch has called on Congress to block the weapons sale to the Saudis and issued a highly critical report in November charging that the Saudi-led coalition has failed to investigate what it called "unlawful coalition airstrikes in Yemen." According to the United Nations, most of the 2,600 civilian deaths since the coalition began strikes against the Houthis have resulted from those coalition airstrikes.
A Saudi military spokesman confirmed today that the Saudi military has an investigations committee that now meets to look into allegations of civilian casualties. According to the spokesman, the committee includes representatives from the defense and foreign affairs ministries, the Saudi Red Crescent and military lawyers. However, there are no public reports from those investigations.
The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which facilitates foreign sales, says the sale would replenish supplies and "help sustain strong military-to-military relationships between the United States and Saudi Arabia."
The proposed sale includes some of the most advanced precision weapons systems produced in the U.S., including Joint Direct Attack Munitions, known as JDAMs. These and other smart weapon systems have GPS guidance systems, a substantial improvement over the unguided weapons that are now in the Saudi stocks. However, it's not clear when the new munitions would be delivered once the sale goes through.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. State Department has approved a $1.3 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia. Congress still must approve the deal, which seems likely. The sale of arms faces little opposition here in the U.S. This, despite criticism from human rights groups who say the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have indiscriminately killed and injured thousands of civilians. The Saudis and allies have been at war in Yemen for nine months fighting Houthi rebels who took over the capital and much of the country. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and joins us now.
And, Deb, what does this $1.3 billion buy?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's a big weapons package. Primarily it buys what's known as smart bombs, some 13,000 precision-guided munitions. The star of this package is a weapon system called a JDAM. These are GPS-guided. They're some of the most precise weapon systems that the U.S. produces. The Saudis have been asking for these weapons for months in what Saudi sources here say have been very tense meetings with U.S. officials. I talked to Ford Fraker in Riyadh. He's a former U.S. ambassador, and he sums up the Saudi position this way.
FORD FRAKER: You know, you can imagine them saying to everybody that's criticizing them, look, if we had better weapons, you know, there'd be less casualties. And I think that's probably correct, but I think the whole issue of civilian casualties is not one you're going to eradicate.
CORNISH: But this arms sale also comes as the U.N. is trying to start a round of peace talks to end the fighting, and I gather there's been some criticism about a mixed message, right, approving the weapons sale on the eve of trying to push for these talks?
AMOS: That's what human rights advocates are saying. Human Rights Watch called for the sale to be canceled. Doctors Without Borders has sharply criticized the Saudis after two of their medical clinics were hit in strikes. This was in October and again this month, even after MSF said that they gave the Saudis coordinates. Now, according to the Saudi military spokesman I spoke to today, there are new procedures to investigate these incidents. There's now a committee that includes the Saudi Red Crescent, the Foreign Ministry, military lawyers to look into these allegations. And that's new for the Saudis. Again I talked to Ford Fraker, the former ambassador, about these new procedures.
FRAKER: They're taking, from their perspective, great steps to try and ensure that civilian casualties aren't that high. But it's almost impossible to control in this kind of a war. I mean, we saw this in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, the civilian casualties there were enormous despite our technological superiority in terms of weapons and all the rest of it. So you'll be seeing the same thing in Yemen.
AMOS: Now, Audie, some of these weapons might not be delivered for more than a year, but a few could come right away.
CORNISH: Big picture on this war in Yemen - why would the U.S. back the Saudis on this? How does this fit into the U.S.-Saudi relationship?
AMOS: Well, this was the first test of the relationship after the U.S. completed a nuclear deal with Iran. The U.S. promised to help Gulf states counter Iranian power in the region. In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebels who seized the capital and ousted the government, and the Saudis and the U.S. see it as part of a struggle with Iran throughout the region.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, where do things stand in that relationship, I guess, looking ahead for this war in Yemen?
AMOS: Well, the sale of these weapons is a signal of U.S. support, but this war has devastated Yemen. It's the poorest country in the Gulf. And in this chaos, the militants of al-Qaida and ISIS are gaining ground. There's a cease-fire proposed for December. Yemeni government officials and rebels returned to the negotiating table for a second time, but no one I've talked to here, from Western the Saudi sources, believe that the fighting is over yet.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Deborah, thanks.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.