Last week, in its latest condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition and its backers, Amnesty International outlined what it called likely war crimes committed by the coalition in the northeast province of Sadaa, a Houthi stronghold. It called for a suspension of all arms transfers to the coalition by its backers, including the United States and United Kingdom.Since October 2010, the US has sold Saudi Arabia more than $90 billion in aircraft, defense systems, bombs, missiles, and other weapons. When war broke out in Yemen, it began to expedite shipments. American arms manufacturers have also sold billions of dollars' worth of material to other Gulf coalition members, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Both the Saudis and UAE have purchased controversial cluster munitions — banned by more than 100 countries — that have been used in the current conflict.Since the airstrikes started on March 25, the US has provided the coalition with vital air-refueling sorties, search-and-rescue support, and help with logistics and intelligence — the centerpiece of which is a Saudi-based "Joint Combined Planning Cell" staffed with American personnel who interact daily with the Saudi military. This support involves what the US military's Central Command (CENTCOM) terms "targeting assistance."
But proving that the US has abetted war crimes or violations of international humanitarian law — or even obtaining the information to make a judgment about potential American responsibility — is difficult. From the start, the US has insulated itself from the fallout of a bloody intervention that it has helped sustain. Behind the scenes and in select public statements, American officials have urged the Saudis to be more careful, but there is no indication that the Obama administration has in any way adjusted its assistance in light of the continuing civilian toll.On October 2, alluding to the Wahija wedding strike, the White House's National Security Council said that the administration was "deeply concerned" about civilian casualties and called on "all sides of the conflict in Yemen to do their utmost to avoid harm to civilians.""We call for an investigation into these reported civilian casualties and for the findings to be reported publicly," said NSC spokesman Ned Price, though he emphasized that the US "has no role in targeting decisions made by the coalition in Yemen."
'The Saudis are using Yemen as an experiment lab for violence, and this will have an extensive impact in the long term.'
"Without US in-air refueling, combat search-and-rescue, a steady and expedited flow of weapons and ammunition, and contractor logistical support, the air campaign couldn't happen," said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been closely studying the intervention.Chis Jenks, a professor of international law at Southern Methodist University and a 20-year veteran of the US armed forces, said that while the US is not officially a member of the Saudi-led coalition, it is difficult to overestimate how essential it is to the campaign.
'The number of countries that are capable of aerial refueling is amazingly few. The US remains uniquely equipped to provide logistical support and a wide range of kinds and types of intelligence.'
On October 7, five days after the White House statement on casualties, coalition jets hit another wedding, this time in Sanaban village in Dhamar governorate. According to witnesses who spoke with UN investigators, one of three brothers who were to be married was killed.The Saudi-led coalition claims that the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, and accuse Tehran of supporting the rebels. The extent of Iran's backing is disputed, and support from forces loyal to Saleh, armed with his weapons stockpiles — including arms supplied by the US — have played an outsized role in the rebels' advances. Still, in Washington, the fight in Yemen is often considered a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.A Yemen-based human rights official said that the US is driven to provide support in order to placate the Saudis after their opposition to the nuclear deal that the US and other world powers reached with Tehran this summer."It comes down to the Iran nuclear deal, and this is the price to be paid, the pound of flesh," said the official, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity due to the official's ongoing work in the country. "The Saudis get to do whatever they want to do in Yemen."Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar and expert on Yemen at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that the unconditional support that the US, the UK, and other Western countries provide to the coalition has "led the Saudis to be more destructive in their use of force.""Now the Saudis are using Yemen as an experiment lab for violence, and this will have an extensive impact in the long term," he said.For the people of Wahija, the geopolitical implications of the war in Yemen are the least of their worries. Jets continue to fly over the town and other villages like it, and civilians continue to live under a daily threat of attack. Residents in the area said recently that they were still finding the remains of friends and neighbors scattered around the town.Related: As Saudis Block a Human Rights Inquiry in Yemen, America Stays QuietMany Wahija residents fled after the September 28 bombing to take shelter elsewhere. One of them, Abdullah Saleh Omar, returned on the afternoon of the bombing to check on his house."We found half the body of a woman in my house," he said. "Between the trees all around my house people found body parts — arms and legs."Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford