Defense

Senators praise decision to halt some Saudi arms sales, urge more action

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A bipartisan quartet of senators who led a failed effort to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia applauded Thursday the Obama administration’s decision to halt some arms sales to the kingdom, but said more needs to be done to curb U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war.

“Halting these weapons sales to the Saudis is the right call,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “But if we are concerned about U.S.-supplied bombs being dropped on civilians, we should also stop refueling the Saudi planes that are flying those missions.”

Reports this week said the administration was halting a sale of precision-guided munitions over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen. The United States will also curtail some intelligence sharing that could lead to civilian casualties, but increase the information it shares specifically about Saudi border security.

Other aspects of U.S. support, including air refueling and other planned weapons sales, will remain the same, according to the report.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since March 2015. The United States has supported the effort with limited intelligence and logistics such as air refueling, as well as by selling the Saudis billions of dollars in arms.

But human rights groups and some lawmakers have been putting increasing pressure on the Obama administration to scale back support as the civilian death toll mounts. More than 4,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015, according to the United Nations.

In September, Murphy and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) led an effort to try to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to the Saudis, but could not muster enough votes.

“Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh alliance have been responsible for killing innocent civilians and denying vitally needed humanitarian aid,” Murphy said. “Any further assistance — including weapons deliveries already in the pipeline — should be conditioned on prioritizing civilian protection and a willingness to compromise in political negotiations to end the war.”

Paul, too, said he was pleased with the administration’s decision, but said it is just a small part of U.S. support.

“Halting this $350 million sale is a positive start, but it is only a drop in the bucket of the administration’s total support,” he said in a statement. “Until President Obama ends his unilateral, unconstitutional involvement in this regional war, our voices will only get louder.”

Franken likewise said pressure needs to be kept on the administration.

“I’m hopeful that this decision begins to send the message that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children,” he said in a statement. “This is an important step, one that we called for in Congress, but we need to keep pressing for more action.”

Lee looked ahead to the next administration and said Congress needs to work with it to review the issue.

“While this announcement may signal that the administration is finally beginning to understand the contradictions of their policy towards Yemen, our military is still involved in a war without authorization from Congress with no justifiable strategy,” Lee said in a statement. “From day-one Congress should begin to engage the incoming administration on reviewing the international entanglements in which our country has become involved.” 

It’s unclear what tack President-elect Donald Trump will take with Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni civil war was not mentioned on the campaign trail, but Trump’s tough talk on Iran has encouraged some in Riyadh.

Tags Al Franken Chris Murphy Donald Trump Mike Lee Rand Paul

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