The U.S. wants Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. And it has leverage.

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By F. Brinley Bruton

Senior U.S. officials have gone further than ever before in calling for an end in the Saudi-led war in Yemen —a conflict that has pushed 14 million people to the brink of starvation.

“Coalition airstrikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday. The same day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said all sides needed to take meaningful steps toward a cease-fire and begin negotiations in the next 30 days.

The comments raised the prospect that the Trump administration is getting tougher with the Saudis over their military campaign against Iran-linked Houthi rebels, which has killed more than 10,000 people in the desperately poor country since 2015. All sides have been accused of violating international law and committing war crimes.

A girl suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a treatment center in a hospital in Yemen
A girl suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a hospital in Yemen on Oct. 25.Essa Ahmed / AFP – Getty Images

Washington supports Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, through billions in arms sales. It also refuels their jets mid-air, provides training and shares intelligence. So if the U.S. were to try to force the Saudis’ hands, it has leverage.

The best way to force the Saudis to change their ways it to stop sending weapons, according to Human Rights Watch’s Yemen researcher Kristine Beckerle.

“You’ve gotten so many violations already over the past three and a half years, so what Pompeo and Mattis should be doing is saying, ‘These are the benchmarks. We’re going to hold up weapons sales until you actually fulfill these tasks,’” she said, referring to the apparent bombing of civilian sites by the coalition.

American arms deliveries to the Saudis reached $5.5 billion last year, up from $1.7 billion in 2009, according to the U.K.-based Campaign Against Arms Trade which compiled the figures using Department of Defense statistics. The U.S. government agreed to sell more than $79 billion in arms to Riyadh over that period.


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