Following a week that saw the Saudi-led coalition kill significant numbers of Yemeni civilians, including in an attack on a school and the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders facility—which led the charity to announce it was pulling its staff from the northern part of the country—Reuters reported exclusively on Friday that the Pentagon in June withdrew military personnel who were involved in planning the campaign from Saudi Arabia.
"Fewer than five U.S. service people are now assigned full-time to the 'Joint Combined Planning Cell,' which was established last year to coordinate U.S. support, including air-to-air refueling of coalition jets and limited intelligence-sharing," according to the news service, which cited Lieutenant Ian McConnaughey, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain. That's down from a peak of 45, he said.
However, Reuters continued:
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reduced staffing was not due to the growing international outcry over civilian casualties in the 16-month civil war that has killed more than 6,500 people in Yemen, about half of them civilians.
And a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, said: "The U.S. may move its assets, but that doesn't have any impact on the bilateral relationship between the countries." Indeed, the "average of two refueling sorties every day" and provision of "limited intelligence support" to the coalition will continue, Pentagon officials confirmed to Reuters.
That's "on top of more than $100 billion in arms deals with Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2015, and recent deals made explicitly to “replenish” stockpiles spent in Yemen," Samuel Oakford wrote at the New York Times on Friday.
In a piece charging the U.S. with "looking the other way" as Saudi Arabia kills civilians with impunity, Oakford continued:
Many in Washington see support for the Saudi-led coalition as necessary for maintaining American-Saudi relations after the nuclear deal with Iran last year. Saudi Arabia has used this leeway to carry out its Yemen campaign with abandon. Each fatal strike and subsequent implausible Saudi denial should test the limits of the Obama administration’s support.
Instead, a spokesman for United States Central Command, which oversees American operations in the Middle East including support for the coalition, told me last week that the United States is not conducting a single investigation into civilian casualties in Yemen.
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The recent uptick in airstrikes and fighting across Yemen follows the collapse of United Nations-brokered peace talks that were being held in Kuwait. The possibility of a resumption of full-scale war and all the suffering that accompanies it could have been an opportunity for the Obama administration to reflect on its axiomatic support for the Saudi coalition. But even after last week’s string of outrageous bombings, the White House has still not done that.
Indeed, Trevor Timm argued this week in the Guardian:
Put simply, the US is quite literally funding a humanitarian catastrophe that, by some measures, is larger than the crisis in Syria. As the New York Timeseditorial board wrote this week: “Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support.” Yet all we’ve heard is crickets.
Not only are Obama administration officials "hardly ever asked about the crisis," Timm added, but "[b]oth the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns have been totally silent on this issue despite their constant arguing over who would be better at 'stopping terrorism'."
And he went on:
The fact that the Obama administration has allowed the Saudis to continue committing war crimes should be a full-fledged scandal. Officials should be resigning over this and shouting from the rooftops. Instead, for months, we’ve heard almost nothing from the administration beyond a couple boilerplate, lukewarm expressions of “concern” as the death toll has mounted over a year and a half. Finally, after prodding from reporters last week, the US state department condemned the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (AKA Médecins sans Frontières) hospital that killed at least 15 people. But then, the state department spokesman refused to say whether the U.S. would stop supplying the Saudis with the weapons they are using.
In fact, argues independent journalist Marcy Wheeler on Saturday, "misleading" stories like the Reuters exclusive—which seems to suggest "the U.S. is not as involved in this war as it really is," she says—will make the necessary task of limiting arms transfers "all the more difficult."
Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 Yemeni citizens demonstrated in the capital of Sana'a on Saturday, in support of a new governing council announced by Houthi rebels and in opposition to the renewed Saudi airstrikes.
According to news outlets, bombs were reported to have been dropped nearby by planes of the Saudi-led coalition, though no casualties were reported.
Peace group CodePink is circulating a petition calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to "make clear that the U.S. will not continue to support Saudi Arabia's war against Yemen and demand that the ceasefire is resumed" when he meets with Saudi leaders this Thursday and Friday.