Washington: The State Department has approved a resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a potential sign of reinvigorated US support for Riyadh’s involvement in the neighboring ongoing civil war in Yemen.
The proposal from the State Department would reverse a decision made late in the Obama administration to suspend the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh, which leads a mostly Arab coalition conducting air strikes against Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure, which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen, and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.
It also signals a break with the more conservative approach of Obama’s administration about US involvement in the conflict.
The move takes place as the Trump administration considers its approach to the Yemeni war, which has pitted US and Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Al Houthi rebels.
Al Houthis have received substantial support from Iran which Saudi Arabia has long complained of and the US has confirmed.
Iran has provided money, weapons and even training to Al Houthi rebels despite repeated calls by Saudi Arabia and other regional players to stop interfering in the domestic afairs of Arab countries.
While the US military has provided support to the Saudi-led air campaign since 2015, including aerial refueling for Saudi jets and a US advisory mission in the Saudi operations headquarters, the Obama administration sought to scale back that support last year amid a series of alleged Saudi strikes in which civilians were killed.
Despite Saudi hopes that the conflict would quickly restore Hadi to power, it is now approaching its third year.
As of January, the conflict had led to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
“It has become a quagmire in which we were deeply involved but had very little influence,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as the top human rights official at the State Department under President Barack Obama.
“That was not a good deal for the United States.”
Pressure increased on the Obama administration in October of last year, when Saudi jets hit a Yemeni funeral hall, killing more than 100 people.
An investigation team with the Saudi-led Arab coalition said wrong information led to strike ordered that victims’ families be compensated.
At the end of a review prompted by that strike, the Obama White House made the decision to halt the planned sale of roughly $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems to Riyadh.
At the same time, officials reaffirmed other kinds of military support, part of a carrot-and-stick approach, reflecting US eagerness to smooth things over with a crucial Middle Eastern ally that was sharply critical of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Now, President Donald Trump, who has also voiced opposition to the nuclear deal, has an opportunity to recalibrate that support and reset ties with Riyadh.
An ongoing Yemen policy review is also a chance for Trump to demonstrate a tougher approach to Iran and its activities throughout the Middle East. Trump and some of his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have called Tehran a chief threat to American security.
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the Trump administration hopes to roll back Iranian influence in large part in Yemen.
“We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. And we’ll be looking for all the tools that the US government has,” the official said.
“In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.”
Trump has already supported the expansion of a separate military campaign in Yemen, one that US forces are now waging against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent militant group that has grown stronger amid Yemen’s instability.
It is not yet known how the new administration will approach the beleaguered Yemen peace process, one that Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, tried unsuccessfully to push toward a peace deal.
Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said that allowing Saudi Arabia to purchase the precision weapons would make sense. “My own view is that we should be able to sell these,” said Feierstein, who now directs the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Feierstein and other advocates of the sale argue that precision munitions are preferable to unguided or “dumb” bombs and are less likely to cause civilian casualties when used properly.
“We should provide more help, more support,” Feierstein said. “We should not cut off all the tools that would enable them to do this the right way.”
If the White House gives its blessing to the new State Department position, the administration would then notify Congress about its intent to move forward with the sale.