As the US slams Russian bombing in Aleppo, accusing Putin of "crimes against humanity" and in the process sending US-Russian relations to levels not seen since the Cold War, it quietly sells billions in weapons and equipment to Saudi Arabia, a nation which as Hillary Clinton revealed in a "private setting" to the 2014 Jewish United Fund Advance & Major Gifts Dinner, has "exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years." It also happens to be one of the biggest state donors to the Clinton Foundation. Which may explain why as Reuters reported in an exclusive story today, the Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite misgivings and warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.
Citing government documents and the accounts of current and former officials, Reuters reveals that while the Obama administration and the Pentagon rail against Russian bombing in Syria, State Department officials have been skeptical - in private of course - of the Saudi military's ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying "critical infrastructure" needed for Yemen to recover.
However, and this may be where Saudi funding for Hillary's campaign - according to a recent report, Saudi Arabia funded 20% of Hillary's presidential campaign - and her election came into play, government lawyers ultimately did not reach a conclusion on whether U.S. support for the campaign would make the United States a "co-belligerent" in the war under international law, Reuters said citing four current and former officials. Such a finding would have obligated Washington to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen and would have raised a legal risk that U.S. military personnel could be subject to prosecution, at least in theory.
The findings emerge days after an air strike on a wake in Yemen on Saturday that killed more than 140 people renewed focus on the heavy civilian toll of the conflict. The Saudi-led coalition denied responsibility, but the attack drew the strongest rebuke yet from Washington, which said it would review its support for the campaign to "better align with U.S. principles, values and interests."
What Reuters' report reveals is that instead of Russia being the war criminal, as the US has now alleged, the real aggressor would be Saudi Arabia, and the US - whose actions have enabled Saudi war crimes - would be a "co-belligerent" participant.
Reuters notes that a 2013 ruling from the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor significantly widened the international legal definition of aiding and abetting such crimes. The ruling found that "practical assistance, encouragement or moral support" is sufficient to determine liability for war crimes. Prosecutors do not have to prove a defendant participated in a specific crime, the U.N.-backed court found.
Ironically, and exposing the unabashed hypocrisy behind the US political system, the U.S. government already had submitted the Taylor ruling to a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to bolster its case that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda detainees were complicit in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
The previously undisclosed material sheds light on the closed-door debate that shaped U.S. President Barack Obama’s response to what officials described as an agonizing foreign policy dilemma: how to allay Saudi concerns over a nuclear deal with Iran - Riyadh's arch-rival - without exacerbating a conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands.
Exposing the selective morality of the US government, the documents, obtained by Reuters under the Freedom of Information Act, date from mid-May 2015 to February 2016, a period during which State Department officials reviewed and approved the sale of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia to replenish bombs dropped in Yemen. The documents were heavily redacted to withhold classified information and some details of meetings and discussion.
It gets better. While the US would take even the slightest opportunity to slam Russia for allegations of civilian deaths, State Department lawyers "had their hair on fire" as reports of civilian casualties in Yemen multiplied in 2015, and prominent human rights groups charged that Washington could be complicit in war crimes, one U.S. official said. That official and the others requested anonymity. During an October 2015 meeting with private human rights groups, a State Department specialist on protecting civilians in conflict acknowledged Saudi strikes were going awry.
"The strikes are not intentionally indiscriminate but rather result from a lack of Saudi experience with dropping munitions and firing missiles," the specialist said, according to a Department account of the meeting.
Ah, the old, they are not bloodthirsty murderers (whom we are supplying), they are just incompetent, defense. At least the US did not blame Putin's crack team of hackers for this fiasco as well.
Meanwhile, truly pleading stupidity, the Saudi government called allegations of civilian casualties fabricated or exaggerated and has resisted calls for an independent investigation - considering the civilian death toll is estimated to be over 10,000 one can see why. The humor continued when the Saudi-led coalition has said it takes its responsibilities under international humanitarian law seriously, and is committed to the protection of civilians in Yemen. The Saudi embassy in Washington declined further comment.
In a statement issued to Reuters before Saturday's attack, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said, "U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check. ... We have repeatedly expressed our deep concern about airstrikes that allegedly killed and injured civilians and also the heavy humanitarian toll paid by the Yemeni people."
The Saudi "cooperation" with the US most certainly is not a blank check: since March 2015, Washington has authorized more than $22.2 billion in weapons sales to Riyadh, much of it yet to be delivered. That includes a $1.29 billion sale of quote-unquote precision munitions announced in November 2015 and specifically meant to replenish stocks used in Yemen.
The billions in recycled petrodollars may explain why the Pentagon and the State Department's Near East Affairs bureau leaned toward preserving good relations with Riyadh "at a time when friction was increasing because of the nuclear deal with Iran." That's the pretext: the real reason why it was critical to preserve good relations with Riyadh despite risks of being branded a war criminal, is to keep the money rolling in.
Still, not everyone was corrupt: the State Department's Office of the Legal Advisor, backed by government human rights specialists, expressed concern over U.S. complicity in possible Saudi violations of the laws of war. As Reuters adds, U.S. refueling and logistical support of Riyadh's air force - even more than the arms sales - risked making the United States a party to the Yemen conflict under international law, three officials said.
The estimate of Yemeni casualties range from 3,800 to over 10,000, with Saudi-led airstrikes on markets, hospitals and schools accounting for 60 percent of the death toll, the United Nations human rights office said in August. However, unlike the Syria campaign, there is hardly a mention of US support of Saudi Arabia anywhere in the prime time media.
Still, in a surprising move, the UN just stopped short of accusing either side of war crimes, saying that was for a national or international court to decide. No international court has decided yet.
Reuters also reports that in August 2015, the White House convened a meeting on how best to engage the Saudis over rising civilian casualties in a sign of mounting concern over the issue. That same month, State Department officials gathered to discuss how to track those casualties. What Obama decided on was not to halt arms sales but to provide Saud Arabia with... no strike lists.
While preserving military ties with Riyadh, the Obama administration has tried to reduce civilian casualties by providing the Saudis with "no-strike lists" of targets to avoid, dispatching to Saudi Arabia a U.S. expert on mitigating civilian casualties and pressing for peace talks, the officials said.
"If we’re going to be supporting the coalition, then we have to accept a degree of responsibility for what’s happening in Yemen and exercise it appropriately," a senior administration official said.
Did Saudi Arabia follow the no strike lists? Nope.
After ceasefire talks collapsed in August and airstrikes resumed, coalition bombs destroyed the main bridge from the port of Hodeidah to the capital of Sanaa, a main supply route for humanitarian food aid, Oxfam International said.
Another U.S. official said the bridge was on a U.S. no-strike list
Meanwhile, the sales go on. As we reported previously, despite demands to halt it, the Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year. More than 60 U.S. House of Representatives members urged Obama not to do the deal, but the push to block that sale failed in the U.S. Senate on Sept. 21.
Some critics say the administration’s approach has failed.
"In the law of war, you can be guilty for aiding and abetting war crimes and at some point the ... evidence is going to continue to mount and I think the administration is now in an untenable situation," said Congressman Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and former military prosecutor.
Of course, if and when the evidence becomes too big to ignore, whoever is the prosecutor will simply be replaced, bought out or silenced by other more unconventional means, because if there is anything the past few months of Clinton scandals have shown us, it is that US foreign policy goes to the highest bidder, a list topped by - you guessed it - Saudi Arabia.