The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has intensified Washington’s debate over the war in Yemen. On February 13, by a 248-177 vote, the House of Representatives passed a War Powers Act resolution to end U.S. participation in the war.
But officials in Washington, D.C. don’t generally know that under terms of a little noticed U.S. law, President Donald Trump could end the Yemen War in a matter of days.
US arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin supply 57 percent of the military aircraft used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The U.S. corporations hire hundreds of US civilian mechanics and technicians to repair, maintain and fuel fighter jets and helicopters. The Arms Export Control Act requires Saudi Arabia to use the military equipment for legitimate self defense.
Saudi Arabia’s consistent pattern of disproportionate attacks on civilians belies any claim of self defense, according to Brittany Benowitz, an attorney and former Congressional staffer who analyzes arms control issues.
“The Trump Administration is currently not complying with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act,“ she told me. The act requires the President to stop supplies of spare parts and maintenance of Saudi fighter planes if they violate the act.
Those measures would undermine Saudi military capability fairly quickly, much faster than banning new arms sales, according to William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy. “It would affect their ability to fight immediately,” he said in an interview.
Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, a co-sponsor of the War Powers resolution against the Yemen War, told me, “We would never tolerate the U.S. military having this kind of civilian casualties. The war makes us complicit.”
Operations and Maintenance
Two U.S. laws, the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are supposed to strictly control use of American-made weapons. Third country nationals are prohibited from operations and maintenance of US aircraft in Saudi Arabia. That means either Americans or Saudis must hold those jobs.
Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, explained that the laws aim to protect US military secrets.
“We have the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” he told me. The law “makes sure you don’t have someone from another country who would jeopardize our security.”
US policy is also supposed to encourage training of Saudis as mechanics and in other skilled jobs so the country can diversify its workforce. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Saudis don’t have the desire or the educational background for those jobs, said Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group, a company that analyzes the aerospace industry.
“US contractors are heavily involved in making those things fly,” he told me.
Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, told me that operations and maintenance have become a very profitable niche market for US corporations. Defense contractors can make as much as 150 percent more profit from operations and maintenance than from the original arms sale, he said. In 2017 Boeing cut a $480 million deal to maintain and repair Saudi F-15 fighters.
Arms manufacturers, Aboulafia said, “use the razor blade model.” They make money from the initial plane sales, but “parts and maintenance provide the real money.”
In early 2015, Houthi rebels were on the verge of seizing power in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, claiming the Houthis were Iranian proxies, began a widespread bombing campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent ground troops to occupy the southern part of the country.
Both the Saudis and Emiratis predicted quick victory. That was nearly four years ago.
The Trump Administration argues that the Saudis are backing the legitimate Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and protecting Yemen from Iranian aggression. But Hadi’s term expired in 2015, and he has so little popular support that he lives in Saudi Arabia and only sporadically visits Yemen.
The Houthis, a conservative Shia political movement, control the northern part of the country. They stand accused of many human rights abuses, including recruiting child soldiers and firing missiles indiscriminately at civilian areas.
“It’s not good guys here and bad guys there,” said Korb. “The Saudis are trying to restore the government. But it’s not exactly democratic.”
US and European companies provide virtually all of the munitions used to attack both military and civilian targets. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missile that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous school bus attack in August last year.
The Pentagon argues that its advisors play a very limited role in Yemen, and that it encourages the Saudis to avoid hitting civilian targets. The U.S. military provides about 100 technicians to maintain Saudi planes in addition to the hundreds of American civilian contractors.
Critics point out that the United States plays a bigger role in the war than the Pentagon admits. The US Army runs a classified program inside Yemen called “Operation Yukon Journey“ that helps locate Houthi missiles. The UAE has hired former U.S. special ops soldiers to assassinate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the UAE but are not connected with the Houthis.
“The US role is quite comprehensive in Yemen,” said analyst Hartung, “from supplying the weapons, to targeting, fueling, and equipment maintenance. It’s quite extensive.”
Efforts to Stop the War
In the aftermath of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration has come under increased pressure to stop participating in the Yemen War.
Congress is considering a number of bills to reduce the US role. Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, introduced legislation to end future sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, but would also sanction Iran for its support of the Houthis.
Late last year, the administration stopped US mid-air refueling of Saudi planes. It could also stop selling precision munitions, as ordered by President Obama in 2016 but reversed by President Trump. The United States could also stop providing spare parts for US-made F-15s, stop the maintenance work on Saudi aircraft and even refuse to transfer classified technology, such as computer programs used to strike enemy targets.
“The Arms Export Control Act requires the suspension in sales of articles and services to all members of the coalition involved in the misuse of U.S. origin equipment,” said analyst Benowitz.
Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, reintroduced a War Powers resolution to prohibit all US support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis. The resolution previously passed the Senate 56-41 and may well again in this session. However, the House and Senate bills would have to overcome a likely presidential veto.
But just taking a vote on the resolutions will help pressure the Trump Administration. Representative Khanna said there’s no excuse for the thousands of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing.
“We need to be clear: There should be no US support for the civil war.”
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, “Foreign Correspondent,” appears regularly at 48hills.