To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.
As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.
Last week, defense industry officials told Congress that they were expecting within days a request from Arab allies fighting the Islamic State — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — to buy thousands of American-made missiles, bombs and other weapons, replenishing an arsenal that has been depleted over the past year.
The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations, meant to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region. But because Israel and the Arab states are now in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration has been far more willing to allow the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf, with few public objections from Israel.
“When you look at it, Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The gulf countries “do not represent a meaningful threat” to Israel, he said. “They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.”
Industry analysts and Middle East experts say that the region’s turmoil, and the determination of the wealthy Sunni nations to battle Shiite Iran for regional supremacy, will lead to a surge in new orders for the defense industry’s latest, most high-tech hardware.
The militaries of gulf nations have been “a combination of something between symbols of deterrence and national flying clubs,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, a defense analyst at the Teal Group. “Now they’re suddenly being used.”
Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year — the most ever, and more than either France or Britain — and has become the world’s fourth-largest defense market, according to figures released last week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global military spending. The Emirates spent nearly $23 billion last year, more than three times what they spent in 2006.
Qatar, another gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence around the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. Now the tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets. Qatari officials are expected to present the Obama administration with a wish list of advanced weapons before they come to Washington next month for meetings with other gulf nations.
American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”
At the same time, giving the gulf states the ability to strike Iran at a time of their choosing might be the last thing the United States wants. There are already questions about how judicious Washington’s allies are in using American weaponry.
“A good number of the American arms that have been used in Yemen by the Saudis have been used against civilian populations,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an assertion that Saudi Arabia denies.
Mr. Kimball said he viewed the increase in arms sales to the region “with a great deal of trepidation, as it is leading to an escalation in the type and number and sophistication in the weaponry in these countries.”
Congress enacted a law in 2008 requiring that arms sales allow Israel to maintain a “qualitative military edge” in the region. All sales to the Middle East are evaluated based on how they will affect Israeli military superiority. But the Obama administration has also viewed improving the militaries of select Arab nations — those that see Iran as a threat in the region — as critical to Israeli security.
“It is also important to note that our close relationships with countries in the region are critical to regional stability and Israel’s security,” Andrew J. Shapiro said in a speech in 2011, when he was an assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. “Our relationships with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and many Gulf countries allow the United States to strongly advocate for peace and stability in the region.”
There is an unquestionably sectarian character to the current conflicts in the Middle East, nowhere more so than in the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen. The Saudis have assembled a group of Sunni nations to attack Houthi militia fighters who have taken over Yemen’s capital, Sana, and ousted a government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Saudi officials have said that the Houthis, a Shiite group, are being covertly backed by Iran. Other nations that have joined the coalition against the Houthis, like Morocco, have characterized their participation in blunt sectarian terms.
“It’s a question of protecting the Sunnis,” Mbarka Bouaida, Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview.
But Sunni nations have also shown a new determination to use military force against radical Sunni groups like the Islamic State. A number of Arab countries are using an air base in Jordan to launch attacks against Islamic State fighters in Syria. Separately, the Emirates and Egypt have carried out airstrikes in Libya against Sunni militias there.
a recent report suggests that Syrian government forces dropped them repeatedly in the northern governorate of Idlib between March 16-31, affecting at least 206 people.
“Chlorine barrels are silent death. You can see the people dying in front of you, but you can’t do anything,” Majd, an emergency first-responder and media liaison officer for the Syrian Civil Defence in Idlib, told the Star.
Human Rights Watch has accused Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government of dropping barrel bombs — crude bombs filled with makeshift explosives, nails, and sometimes chemicals – filled with chlorine on towns in the Idlib governorate last month.
Meanwhile, the deal to sell Predator drones to the Emirates is nearing final approval. The drones will be unarmed, but they will be equipped with lasers to allow them to better identify targets on the ground.
If the sale goes through, it will be the first time that the drones will go to an American ally outside of NATO.
A report released this week by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), titled “Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen,” documents the deadly carnage inflicted by Hellfire missile strikes in US President Barack Obama’s criminal drone war in Yemen.
Drone and other airstrikes have been launched under the authority of either the CIA or the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command against suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) throughout the country since 2002.
These strikes were permitted by former dictator Ali Abduallah Saleh and the recently ousted Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was installed as president by the US and Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni government often claimed responsibility for attacks as a cover for the American government’s actions.
While the US supports Saudi Arabia in its campaign of daily airstrikes against Houthi rebels, who oppose AQAP, it has continued its own air campaign in Yemen. The latest American drone strike hit the city of Mukalla on Sunday, killing as many as seven people.
The first known airstrikes carried out by the Obama administration came on December 17, 2009, when a cruise missile loaded with clusters bombs slammed into the village of Al Majala in Abyan province. While purportedly targeted at an AQAP training camp, it killed at least 44 civilians, including five pregnant women and 21 children. A separate strike the same day killed four people in Arhab.
Since then, there have been at least 121 drone and other airstrikes that have taken the lives of as many as 1,100 people, most of them officially classified as combatants. As a means of limiting the official civilian casualty count in any particular attack, President Obama approved the redefinition of a “combatant” as any male of military service age killed or injured by a drone strike.
In addition to strikes targeted at specific individuals, in 2012 Obama authorized the CIA to use “signature” strikes against targets in Yemen. The decision to launch a signature strike is based purely on patterns of behaviors that the CIA has determined mark a terrorist, meaning many attacks have launched against unknown persons based purely on movements observed from afar by surveillance drones, including their carrying of firearms, which is common in Yemeni tribal society.
Anwar Al Awlaki became the first US citizen to be deliberately targeted and killed by a drone strike on September 30, 2011. Last year, the Obama administration released a legal memo authored by the Justice Department to justify the killing. It asserts that the US President has the power to kill a US citizen, without charges or trial.
President Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University in 2013 in which he outlined supposed guidelines and limits on drone killings. He stated that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
The OSJI review of nine separate drone strikes carried our between 2012 and 2014 reveals this statement to be a blatant lie. The report found that 26 civilians had been killed and 13 injured in this handful of attacks. Investigators traveled to the areas where the strikes occurred and interviewed survivors and the families of those killed.
A drone strike on April 19, 2014 in the Al Sawmaah district of Al Bayda province killed four workers and wounded five others. The men were traveling together in a car when a missile fired from a CIA drone hit a vehicle allegedly carrying AQAP militants approximately thirty meters behind them, blowing up their car as well.
Hussein Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushm, a father of one of the victims, told investigators that he was devastated by the death of his son, Sanad Hussein, who had just gotten a visa to work in Saudi Arabia.
“The news fell on our ears like thunderbolt,” he said. “I got motionless. Even when his body was brought to the village for burial I could not go to have a last look at him. Until this moment, I’m still unable to figure out what happened to my son. They were killed by an American drone.”
Investigators spoke to Musa Ahmed Ali Al Jarraah a 15-year-old boy who survived a strike by two Hellfire missiles on a home in the village of Silat Al Jaarrah on the night of January 23, 2013.
“It was a US drone,” Al Jaraah said. “I saw it while I was on my way home. It flew so low I could view it easily. It had long wings in the rear, its size was not large and it had a head that looked like a camel’s head.”
A crowd of approximately 30 people had gathered outside the home to watch the village’s only television when the missiles struck. The strike injured five civilians including Al Jaraah, who suffered shrapnel wound to his abdomen. A ten-year-old girl, Iftikar Abdoh Mohammed, sustained minor injuries when she was hit in the head with shrapnel.
On September 2, 2012, a Hellfire missile launched by an American drone blew up a truck carrying a group of qat merchants and several others who were returning home from a day at the market in the city of Radaa. The strike killed 12 out of the 14 passengers in the truck, including Rasilah Ali Al Faqih, who was pregnant, and her 10-year-old daughter Dawlah Nasser Salah.
The truck’s driver, Nasser Mabkhout, who survived despite being severely burned, described the attack and its aftermath to the investigators:
“Before we arrived at the junction that leads to the unpaved road of the village, two aircraft approached the front of the car, one white and the other black, as far as I can remember. They approached us more closely, and we started to exchange humor that they would attack us, and we laughed. Our laughter was cut off by two shells…I saw the dead bodies scattered in and around the car, some of them beheaded. I couldn’t differentiate between the bodies of the dead.”
The Yemeni government paid $4,654 for burial expenses to each victim’s family, and eventually paid out a paltry restitution to the families: $32,578 for each individual killed and $13,962 for each person wounded.
As with other drone strikes, the attack on the merchants continues to terrorize civilians long after the victims’ bodies have been buried and restitution paid out to the families. “Since the incident, my family and I as well as the villagers live in constant fear,” one of the victims’ uncles told investigators. “The horror increases with the constant over-flights of the US aircrafts. We go to our farms in fear, our children are afraid to go to school, and at bedtime, women remain in constant fear.”