To anyone who follows the Mideast proxy wars, it came as no surprise when a new CNN investigative report revealed that weapons sold to the Saudi-led coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthis for control of Yemen ended up in the hands of Salafi hardliners.
This is par for the proverbial course and indeed, one of the great ironies of America’s anti-ISIS efforts in Syria is that in addition to the Kurdish YPG, the US has variously supported a hodgepodge of Sunni groups with questionable motives and even murkier loyalties.
The Sunni powers in the region have a long history of backing groups whose ideological affinities with al Qaeda and ISIS are well documented and indeed, the ideology espoused by the groups most Westerners identify with “radical Islamic terror” is institutionalized in the Saudi monarchy.
That’s what made the 2017 anti-Qatar push so absurd – the idea that the Saudis were in a position to point fingers when it comes to aiding and abetting Sunni extremists is mind-bogglingly ridiculous. In reality, the rift stemmed from Doha’s desire to pursue an independent foreign policy, where that means maintaining at least somewhat cordial ties with Tehran.
Even more farcical was the establishment of a “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” in Riyadh, because it effectively represented the opening a global center for combating extremist ideology in the global center for promoting extremist ideology. Cue “the orb”.
At this point, everyone knows the Saudis are slaughtering innocents in Yemen. It’s the furthest thing from a secret. Crown Prince Mohammed is hell-bent on ridding the country of Iranian influence and he doesn’t care how much collateral damage there is along the way. Meanwhile, the Houthis have proven to be more resilient than anyone could have imagined in 2015, when the Saudis first intervened.
If there was a silver lining in the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi it was that the world suddenly cared about Yemen again. In the wake of Trump’s steadfast refusal to accept US (and Turkish) intelligence’s assessment of Prince Mohammed’s culpability, US lawmakers’ patience for America’s role in helping the Saudis wage war in Yemen collapsed.
The above-mentioned CNN investigative report is damning, to say the least. You should absolutely read the entire thing for yourself here, but the bottom line is this:
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States, a CNN investigation has found.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its main partner in the war, have used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes, bolster chosen armed actors, and influence the complex political landscape, according to local commanders on the ground and analysts who spoke to CNN.
By handing off this military equipment to third parties, the Saudi-led coalition is breaking the terms of its arms sales with the US, according to the Department of Defense. After CNN presented its findings, a US defense official confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into the issue.
Again, there’s nothing at all “surprising” about that, but it does underscore the urgency in cutting of US arms sales to the Saudis. They (the Saudis) and the UAE are quite literally handing US weapons to some of the same militants the US is targeting in Yemen.
Additionally, some of those weapons have of course found their way into the hands of the Houthis, which means the IRGC gets to reverse-engineer the American technology. In other words: Iran gets to take a close up look at the latest US military hardware.
So, this is doubly-insane. The Houthis get to pass along lost US tech to the Quds (i.e., to Qassem Soleimani, the bogeyman himself) while the Saudis are funneling the same weapons to Salafi militants, including AQAP. On the former point, here’s a quick excerpt from the CNN piece:
In September 2017, a Houthi-run TV channel broadcast images of Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the de facto rebel leader, proudly sitting behind the wheel of a captured US-made MRAP in the capital Sanaa, as a crowd chanted “death to America” in the background.
CNN obtained an image showing the serial numbers of a second American MRAP in the hands of another senior Houthi official last year in Hodeidah.
And on the latter bit (about Sunni militants), consider the following additional passages:
One of those militias linked to AQAP, the Abu Abbas brigade, now possesses US-made Oshkosh armored vehicles, paraded in a 2015 show of force through the city.
Abu Abbas, the founder, was declared a terrorist by the US in 2017, but the group still enjoys support from the Saudi coalition and was absorbed into the coalition-supported 35th Brigade of the Yemeni army.
At a graveyard of discarded US-made military hardware near the flashpoint port city of Hodeidah, it becomes clear that the Alwiyat al Amalqa — the Giants Brigade, a predominantly Salafi, or ultra-conservative Sunni, militia — is a favored faction.
Nearly half a dozen Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles sit side by side, most bearing stickers with the insignia of the Giants Brigade.
One even has the export label on it showing it was sent from Beaumont, Texas to Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, before ending up in the hands of the militia. The serial number of another MRAP reveals it was manufactured by Navistar, the largest provider of armored vehicles for the US military.
“Make Salafi militias heavily armed again!”
Obviously, all of this argues for a complete cessation of arms sales to Riyadh, but as we saw in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, Trump is having none of that. This is from an infamous interview on October 13:
The President is extremely proud of the arms deal he struck with Prince Mohammed and the White House has made it abundantly clear on any number of occasions that there are virtually no circumstances under which Trump would consider ostracizing King Salman’s favorite son.
Hilariously, even the Saudis understand that the optics are bad. Recall how uncomfortable bin Salman got when Trump used a series of absurd flash cards to brag about the arms deals last year during a meeting with the Crown Prince, who literally laughed at Trump’s poster board visual aides.
On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, was grilled about CNN’s report in a Senate hearing. He contended that if the US were to pull its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen it would mean reducing “the leverage we have to continue to influence them”. Pressed further by lawmakers, he said this:
We have not authorized Saudi Arabia or the Emirates to retransfer any of this equipment to other parties on the ground in Yemen. And as you are well aware, when we do provide equipment, whether it comes government-to-government or commercially provided … the recipients do have to agree to certain stipulations on the use of those and that we do have monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.
Right. How are those working, General?
The icing on the cake came when Votel was asked about Syria, another battleground where the US has struggled to ensure that logistical and tactical support for ostensible “allies” doesn’t end up in the hands of Salafi militants, the General said this about Trump’s plans to pull out:
I was not consulted.
In case it isn’t clear enough, Trump’s Mideast policy is a train wreck of epic proportions.
The only saving grace for Trump is that this is one foreign policy arena where having an abysmal track record isn’t unique to his administration.