The now 7-year-old war has failed in its aim to oust Iran-allied Houthi rebels who have taken control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the rest of northern Yemen. Under the aegis of the United States, the United Nations and other international mediations, all parties to the conflict have joined in what American officials see as a promising but fragile truce this spring and summer.
The publication of the critical report by the Government Accountability Office comes the day after the White House confirmed that President Joe Biden was planning a July trip to Saudi Arabia with the aim of strengthening relations with the oil kingdom.
High oil and gasoline prices are helping fuel inflation in the United States and threatening the prospects of Biden’s Democrats and Biden himself in the upcoming election. Israel and other allies have also urged the US president to repair relations with the Saudis and the de facto Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the interests of regional security.
Biden took office denounce Saudi Arabia on the deaths of non-combatants in Yemen and the 2018 murder of a US-based journalist jamal khashoggi. The US intelligence community says Prince Mohammed likely ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden promised early in his term that the United States would deny any offensive U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia.
News agencies and rights groups have cited repeated civilian deaths attributed to coalition airstrikes, and UN investigators have confirmed many of the accounts. The attacks include a 2018 coalition airstrike on a school bus that killed at least 26 children, according to Human Rights Watch.
The United States says it has worked to train Saudi forces in improved targeting and other best practices to minimize harm to innocent civilians.
The United Nations estimates that between March 2015 and August 2021, around 23,000 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen killed or injured more than 18,000 civilians.
Houthi rebels are also widely accused of rights abuses, including forcing children into fights and profiting from desperately needed food and fuel for civilians. Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Aid groups and international organizations say the war has escalated dramatically food insecurity for millions of people there.
The GAO, an independent watchdog meant to help the government monitor, examined the extent to which the US government has tracked the role that significant US military aid to its two strategic Gulf partners, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates Arab States, played a role in civilian deaths.
Congress commissioned Wednesday’s report from the GAO last year.
The United States has provided more than $54 billion in military support — from missiles and planes to maintenance and training — to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from 2015 to 2021, the GAO said.
State Department officials told GAO investigators they considered civilian damage and how equipment was used when weighing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the report said. .
“In addition, (the Department of Defense) and state officials said they made efforts to understand the extent to which US-sourced defense articles were being used in Yemen,” the report said.
“However, despite multiple reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have caused significant civilian damage in Yemen, the DOD has not reported and the state has not could not provide evidence that it investigated incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates,” GAO investigators said.
In a written response to GAO investigators, State Department Comptroller Jeffrey Mounts disputed the GAO’s overall conclusion. Mounts wrote that the State Department had provided documents on government oversight of the potential involvement of US weapons in attacks that claimed civilian lives or hit civilian infrastructure.
GAO investigators said documents provided by the State Department, however, did not change their conclusion.
The report also quotes U.S. Army Central Command officials as saying “they do not know how DOD security cooperation officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would obtain the information necessary to determine whether American-made defense articles have been used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates against anything other than legitimate military targets.
Outside the Saudi Arabian embassy on Wednesday, local government officials from Washington, DC and Saudi and Yemeni rights advocates unveiled a street sign renaming the block outside the embassy “Jamal Khashoggi Way.”
Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Yemen, blamed Biden at the street ceremony for planning to meet Prince Mohammed, widely known by his initials.
“When you meet MBS, will it serve peace in Yemen?” she asked Biden. “Absolutely not.”
Asked for comment on Wednesday, the State Department cited measures to minimize losses, but added that “we recognize there is work to be done.” Spokespersons for the Saudi Embassy and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the GAO report.
The State Department briefed the GAO on steps it has taken to comply with Biden’s 2021 directive that the United States provide only defensive support to Saudi Arabia, as opposed to materiel that would help him fight his war in Yemen. This includes the State Department telling Saudi Arabia to use new air-to-air missiles only against cross-border air attacks, and not to hit ground targets, the report said.
The State Department said it “suspended” two more ammunition sales out of concern for civil harm.
The version of the report released Wednesday retains what the government calls classified material from the original version, which has not been made public.
The material withheld consisted of “a relatively small amount of information” about the Pentagon’s advisory work and internal State Department decision-making, said Jason Bair, director of the GAO’s office of international affairs and commerce.