Commentary: How Congress can force Saudi Arabia’s hand on Yemen

The Trump administration is ending one of the most important elements of U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen: the refueling of Saudi warplanes. The Nov. 10 announcement is part of the White House response to the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and follows appeals for a ceasefire in the war that Riyadh and its allies have been waging against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since March 2015.  

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So far, the Saudis and their partners, especially the United Arab Emirates, have responded to calls for a ceasefire with more war. The Saudi-led alliance renewed its offensive against the port city of Hodeidah, which is the entry point for 80 percent of Yemen’s food, fuel and other imports. Already, half of Yemen’s 28 million people are on the brink of starvation, and the United Nations has warned that disruption to the port at Hodeidah could trigger a large-scale famine.

But ending the mid-air refueling of Saudi aircraft is not enough to stop the conflict. In addition to refueling warplanes and providing intelligence assistance, the United States has rushed billions of dollars’ worth of missiles, bombs and spare parts to help the Saudi military continue its bombing campaign, starting under President Barack Obama. Yet neither the Obama nor Trump administrations put enough pressure on the Saudis to negotiate a political settlement with the Houthis to end the war.

Riyadh is facing more scrutiny of its actions in Yemen since Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The international outcry is forcing the Trump administration to reexamine its alliance with the kingdom, especially the brash and ruthless crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is the architect of the Yemen war. But Donald Trump and his senior aides have made clear that they still support the prince and won’t try to isolate him.

The most intense pressure on the Saudis is now likely to come from the U.S. Congress, where both Democrats and Republicans have tried to curtail American military assistance to the Saudis and their allies. With the Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers will be able to exercise greater oversight of U.S. military involvement in Yemen when they take office in January. Republicans in the House recently blocked a vote on a Democrat-led resolution invoking the 1973 War Powers Act, arguing that Congress never authorized support for the Saudi coalition. The measure called for an end to military assistance and ordered Trump to withdraw a handful of U.S. special forces operating along the Yemeni-Saudi border. The incoming Democratic majority is poised to take up the measure again next year.

The Yemen war is a complex conflict with a changing set of alliances. The latest phase began in September 2014, when the Houthis marched into the capital, Sana’a, and threatened to take over the rest of the country. The Houthis, who belong to a sect of Shi’ite Islam called Zaydis, were allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime dictator who was ousted from power after the Arab Spring uprisings spread to Yemen in 2011. Saleh was a longtime Saudi and U.S. ally, but his deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, replaced him in 2012 under a Riyadh-brokered deal. Most of Hadi’s government fled to Saudi Arabia after the initial Houthi offensive. While Saudi leaders declared that Iran, through the Houthis, was on the verge of taking over Yemen, the rebels did not receive significant help from Tehran before the Saudi intervention in 2015.

The war has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project found that more than 57,000 people, including combatants, have died since January 2016. The war has also left more than 22 million people – 75 percent of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid, and 1.1 million infected with cholera.

Trump quietly escalated U.S. military involvement in Yemen soon after taking office. In March 2017, he overturned an Obama administration decision to suspend the sale of over $500 million in laser-guided bombs to the Saudi military. In spite of growing criticism in Congress, the Senate narrowly approved the sale in a vote of 53 to 47. That close vote does not bode well for Congress to approve future arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Before Khashoggi’s murder, the Trump administration showed little willingness to pressure Riyadh over Yemen. In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured Congress that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were trying to reduce civilian deaths and enable aid deliveries. Congress required the administration to make this certification as a pre-condition for the Pentagon to continue providing military assistance. But Pompeo’s claim contradicted most other independent reviews of the war, including a report issued in August by a group of UN experts. The report found both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition responsible for war crimes, but the Saudis and their allies “caused most of the documented civilian casualties” due to their air strikes.

After the Khashoggi killing, seven U.S. senators wrote to Pompeo, questioning his decision to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were doing enough to prevent civilian casualties and proposing restrictions on military assistance and upcoming arms deals. Meanwhile, Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for months has blocked the administration from moving ahead with a multi-billion dollar deal to sell 120,000 missiles and other munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi leaders think they can withstand the international backlash against Khashoggi’s murder and their war in Yemen. And the Trump administration is trying to contain the furor by limiting some elements of U.S. military assistance but maintaining weapons sales and allowing the war to continue. The kingdom and its allies are more likely to accept a ceasefire and peace talks if Washington makes it clear that it will no longer support an open-ended war in Yemen. If Trump continues to avoid tough actions against the crown prince, Congress will have to take the lead instead.

About the Author

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. @BazziNYU

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.