As Saudi War Crimes Mount, US Fears Legal Liability Over Yemen War

Govt Lawyers Warn US Could Be 'Co-Belligerent' in War

A major Saudi airstrike on Saturday tore through a funeral home in the Yemeni capital city of Sanaa, killing at least 155 people and wounding over 500. This was the deadliest incident of the war, but hardly earth-shattering, as the Saudi war has been punctuated by scores of incidents of large civilian death tolls.

US warnings that they’re not giving a “blank check” to the Saudis in Yemen may ring hollow, given their continued backing for the conflict, but it comes from genuine concern. That concern, by all indications is that the United States will have some legal liability for the Saudi war crimes they are abetting.

US government lawyers have been feverishly working on arguments to try to avoid the US being classified a “co-belligerent” in the conflict. That classification would reflect how heavily the US is involved in the war, and has led the US to providing some “don’t target” lists to the Saudis of things they aren’t supposed to blow up, an effort to build up a future defense.

The civilian death toll of the Yemen war, ultimately, is a concern for the Obama Administration primarily to the extent it could eventually come back and bite them in war crimes trials. That the US efforts taken to reduce death tolls have been totally ineffective may ultimately be beside the point, and more meant to give US lawyers something to claim that they “tried” to limit civilian deaths at future trials.

It’s still hard to imagine those war crimes trials ever happening, with UN officials openly complaining about the lack of an international probe for the crimes, and the sense that the Saudis can kill with impunity. Despite this concern mounting over the last 18 months, there’s no sign that the Saudis are at serious risk of facing investigations, and the US fear of blowback is likely to keep the US working hard to ensure it remains that way.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.