The US may still be helping Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war after all

In February, President Joe Biden announced that he was ending America’s “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, six years into the conflict that has killed around 230,000 people and triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Instead, the US role would be limited to “defensive” operations “to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

There’s just one problem: The line between “offensive” and “defensive” support is murky, and critics argue even the limited support the US is providing still helps Riyadh carry out its offensive bombing campaign in Yemen.

Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Until November 2018, that support included refueling Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. The Trump administration ended that practice after increased pressure from activists and lawmakers about Riyadh’s brutal conduct in the conflict.

But the US continued to provide logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi war effort and planned to sell billions in advanced weapons like precision-guided missiles to the Saudis.

With Biden’s new policy, the US would stop all of the above and solely help Saudi Arabia defend its territory against threats from the Houthis and elsewhere. As an example of the danger Riyadh faces, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters that the Saudis have suffered over 100 cross-border air attacks with missiles and drones since January.

Biden’s policy sounds straightforward enough. For the past few months, the US made a clean break and no longer provides assistance to Riyadh’s ongoing strikes inside Yemen, right?

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Not quite. That’s because the “defensive” support the US is still providing includes greenlighting the servicing of Saudi aircraft.

Multiple US defense officials and experts acknowledged that, through a US government process, the Saudi government pays commercial contractors to maintain and service their aircraft, and those contractors keep Saudi warplanes in the air. What the Saudis do with those fighter jets, however, is up to them.

The US could cancel those contracts at any time, thus effectively grounding the Saudi Air Force, but doing so would risk losing Riyadh as a key regional partner.

The reality of the situation, then, is squishy enough that the administration says it’s following Biden’s directive and securing its interests in the Middle East, while critics say that Biden’s team is indirectly supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations inside Yemen.

The issue isn’t really a he-said/she-said or who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s a question of how you look at the entirety of America’s role in the war.

“It’s a definitional and kind of theological argument,” said David DesRoches, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, a Pentagon-funded school.

The Biden administration finally clarified its support of Saudi’s military

It took a long time to get a straight answer as to how, exactly, the US was assisting Saudi Arabia after Biden’s February announcement.

Lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Tim Lenderking, the State Department’s special envoy for Yemen, last Wednesday about the new policy. His response was wanting. He said he was “not totally in the loop” and that the panel should ask the Pentagon for specifics.

A reporter the next day asked Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, who oversees all US troops in the Middle East, to provide some clarity. He responded that, when possible, the US military provides the Saudis with warning of any incoming attacks on Saudi Arabia that the US has detected coming from Yemen.

“The principal thing I do with the Saudis is I give them advanced notice when I’m able to do that,” he said, adding that the US provides no intelligence, surveillance, or reconnaissance support inside Yemen. “I would characterize our support as essentially defensive in nature.”

I wanted to know specifically whether the US provides any maintenance, logistical, or refueling support for Saudi warplanes, so on Friday, I asked chief Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby those questions during a regular briefing. His staff got back to me with an answer over the weekend.

“The United States continues to provide maintenance support to Saudi Arabia’s Air Force given the critical role it plays in Saudi air defense and our longstanding security partnership,” said Navy Commander Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokesperson.

While more specific than the administration had been to date, that statement still wasn’t entirely clear. Was the US military directly providing that support? And did the maintenance go to Saudi fighter jets, its missile defense system, or both?

So I asked McNulty to clarify her statement, which she did on Monday in an email. “[The] Department of Defense supports Saudi aircraft maintenance through Foreign Military Sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for which Saudi Arabia bears the costs and implementation is conducted by DoD contractors,” she wrote.

That means Riyadh, with its own money and at no cost to the US taxpayer, uses a US government program to procure maintenance for its warplanes. (That service likely was included when the Saudis bought the American-made warplanes.) It may not be the US military providing direct support, then, but the service was still greenlit by the US.

This doesn’t please critics of the war and America’s role in it. A Democratic congressional aide complained, “Oh, great, the ‘they’re civilian contractors’ line,” adding that a US-approved service to provide maintenance and spare parts for Saudi aircraft is tantamount to America backing Riyadh’s offensive plans.

Others agreed. “The recent admission by the Department of Defense that US companies are still authorized to maintain Saudi warplanes … means that our government is still enabling the Saudi operations, including bombings and enforcing a blockade on Yemen’s ports,” Hassan El-Tayyab, the legislative manager for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation lobbying group, told me. “The administration should use its existing authority to block US military contractors from aiding the Saudi war effort in Yemen.”

Later on Monday, I asked Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesperson, to address those concerns.

“What the president has decided is that the support we’re giving [Saudi Arabia] will be primarily for their self-defense, and not further participating in the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations inside Yemen,” he told me and other reporters in a regular briefing.

“I understand where the question’s going,” he continued, “that maintenance support for systems could be used for both purposes” — that is, offensive and defensive operations. But, he said, the US is doing what it’s doing because “we have a military-to-military relationship with Saudi Arabia that is important to the region and to our interests, and we have a commitment to help them defend themselves against what are real threats.”

Okay, so what does this all mean? Is the US participating in Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen or not? The unsatisfying answer: possibly, but if so, not directly.

The US probably supports some Saudi offensive operations. But canceling the maintenance contract has drawbacks.

There are two main issues here: 1) How do you define an offensive versus defensive operation? and 2) what would the US government canceling the maintenance contract actually mean?

The first question is extremely hard to answer, experts say. “I haven’t heard anybody clearly explain the difference between offensive and defensive operations,” the National Defense University’s Des Roches told me.

That makes sense, especially when you consider that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an Offensive Air Force and a Defensive Air Force. It just has the one aerial service that the US supports.

Still, the offensive part is relatively straightforward: The Saudis find a Houthi target inside Yemen they want to hit, and they bomb it.

But it gets more complicated when you consider what “defensive” might mean. As the Houthis continue to launch missile and drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia, Riyadh might decide to strike a few of the Houthis’ launch points to dissuade further assaults.

Would such a move be defensive or offensive? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that without the US-approved maintenance of Saudi fighters, Riyadh wouldn’t really have the option of launching such retaliatory responses. “They’d be able to fly two out of every 10 aircraft,” said Des Roches. That would give the Houthis an edge in the ongoing fight.

Which leads to the second question: What if the US canceled the maintenance contract?

The Biden administration has the right to do that, experts say, but the consequences of that decision might lead Riyadh to no longer consider the US a reliable partner. That outcome could see Washington lose a key regional friend, a bulwark against Iran, and a nation that lets America station troops in its territory.

Would potentially losing Saudi Arabia as a partner be worth essentially grounding its air force? The Biden administration seems to have calculated that it’s not.

Put together, it seems likely that US-authorized contractors maintaining Saudi warplanes are indirectly involved in helping the Saudis carry out “offensive” operations, however one defines them. “If we’re servicing the planes that are fighting the war, we’re still supporting the war,” said the Democratic congressional aide. That the contract remains in place, after all, is a policy decision. The US could also decide to maintain other equipment and provide training instead of keeping Saudi aircraft in the sky.

But it’s also true that without the maintenance support, Saudi Arabia would be further exposed to all kinds of attacks from the Houthis (and others). And after nixing the contract, the decades-old ties between Washington and Riyadh might not just spiral downward but sever entirely.

Biden’s definitive line between offensive and defensive support isn’t as clean as he may have hoped. The question is if he’ll do anything about it.