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With small changes, U.S. maintains military aid to Saudi Arabia despite rebukes over Yemen carnage

Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes hit a food factory in Sanaa, Yemen, on Aug. 9, 2016. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

The Obama administration will curtail some intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia following a review of military assistance, a U.S. official said, but it will expand support in other areas despite intense criticism of Saudi strikes on civilians during the Kingdom’s air war in Yemen.

The carrot-and-stick approach reflects an attempt by U.S. officials, increasingly uncomfortable with support for an operation that has been widely condemned by rights groups, to distance themselves from the Yemen campaign without alienating a core Middle Eastern ally.

“This is not a punitive measure; it’s a corrective measure,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal decision-making. “We have to careful not to cut back on things that serve our interests in the process of trying to cut back on things that don’t serve our interest.”

The White House launched the high-level review of U.S. assistance in October, following a Saudi airstrike that killed more than 100 people at a Yemeni funeral. The incident, one of a series of apparent Saudi attacks on civilian targets in the Kingdom’s war against Shiite Houthi rebels, prompted the White House to warn that U.S. aid was “not a blank check.”

Now, following months of deliberation, the administration has reached a set of interim conclusions, the official said, including a decision to reduce sharing of intelligence that the United States believes could be used to conduct similar problematic strikes in the Houthi campaign.

At the same time, U.S. officials will continue or even increase other kinds of intelligence sharing, on targets such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or when the United States sees legitimate Saudi concerns about Houthi aggression. The rebels, suspected of ties to Iran, have repeatedly launched attacks across the Saudi-Yemeni border.

U.S. support to Saudi Arabia to hinge on Yemen cease-fire

While the modest changes are an acknowledgment that U.S. attempts to urge greater Saudi restraint have failed, they mostly tweak around the margins of a military relationship that has been central to U.S. goals in the Middle East. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States concluded $58 billion in arms deals to Saudi Arabia from fiscal 2009 to 2015.

The administration has also decided to shelve the planned sale of $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems to Saudi Arabia. Some rights groups have called for a suspension of arms sales by the United States and other countries, pointing to the repeated appearance of U.S. munitions at the sites of Saudi strikes on civilian targets.

The United States will also retool its training for the Saudi air force in an attempt to resolve “some of their structural, endemic problems with their targeting practices,” the official said, and will maintain only a small presence of U.S. military personnel at a Saudi command center in Riyadh.

“Either they will take that to heart and they will listen to us more or, at a minimum, we will no longer be providing assistance to some of their practices,” the official said.

A spokesman for the Saudi military was not immediately available for comment.

But the Obama administration will also expand support in other areas, as officials scramble to avoid further damage to bilateral ties already shaken by President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Officials declined to give details on the expanded support for the defense of the Saudi border, but said it would include greater intelligence sharing related to that threat.

With “the combination of the plus-ups and the curtailment, we hope that that will send a message that this is not an inimical, hostile gesture,” the official said.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said the move was unlikely to impact Saudi behavior or change the course of the Yemen conflict.

“Shifts in policy like this, similar to the Obama administration’s decision to hold back delivery of certain military aid to Egypt in 2013, send a muddled message and end up squandering America’s potential leverage in a conversation about how we can work together to advance common interests like stability in Yemen,” he said.

In an indication of the difficulty of disentangling support for operations targeting Houthis within Yemen from those defending Saudi borders, the United States will continue to use its tanker aircraft to refuel Saudi planes midair, which has been a major component of U.S. assistance to the Yemen operation.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has been a vocal critic of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, said U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, and the civilian deaths there, had made the United States less safe.

“It is completely unacceptable that the United States continues to engage in military operations with the Saudi operation that is resulting in what appear to be multiple war crimes,” said Lieu, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

The Saudi government and its allies have reviewed some of the casualty allegations through an investigatory board. It found the October funeral strike was the result of inaccurate targeting information and called for compensation of the victims’ families.

The official said the review did not address whether Saudi strikes were unlawful, as rights and aid groups have alleged. Some of the sites that have been allegedly struck by Saudi planes include medical facilities, schools and detention centers.

“The question is how many unlawful strikes have to happen before the U.S. and particularly President Obama during the last days of his administration steps up and does something to make it clear that this is unacceptable and the U.S. does not want to risk complicity in these attacks,” said Kristine Beckerle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In Yemen’s war, trapped families ask: Which child should we save?

Even as the White House decided to forego one weapons sale, it has moved forward with others. Just last week, the State Department informed Congress of the administration’s intent to sell 48 Chinook cargo helicopters to Saudi Arabia in a deal worth $3.5 billion. Officials stressed those helicopters were intended for use within Saudi Arabia rather than in neighboring Yemen.