US Senate votes against ending support of Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen

This past Tuesday, the US Senate voted 55-44 against ending support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen—a crusade that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and driven the country to the brink of famine—after a rare attempt by Congress to claw back its war powers from the executive branch.

The vote, which had been intended to take up the war powers resolution and had been opposed by the Trump administration, coincided with a White House meeting between President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. During their meeting, the President lauded US defense sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as describing the state of the US-Saudi relationship as “probably the strongest it’s ever been.” Such strong ties are set to continue due to the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. Mr. Trump also added that “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”

Championed by senators from across the ideological spectrum, including independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Mike Lee, the resolution would have required Trump to extract any troops in “or affecting” Yemen within 30 days. Bernie Sanders, speaking to the Senate before the vote, accused Congress—under Democratic and Republican administrations—of abdicating its “constitutional role in authorizing war.” The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, saw things differently, though, having urged lawmakers to abandon the effort, which he described as “bad policy” and “procedurally mistaken”. Mr. McConnell’s words echoed those of the Pentagon, which is of the opinion that the resolution should not invoke the War Powers Act because the support the US is providing to the Saudi-led coalition “does not involve any introduction of US forces for purposes of the War Powers Resolution.”

Mr. McConnell added that US intelligence provides the Saudis “greater precision in their air campaign,” resulting in fewer civilian casualties. “Withdrawing US support would increase, not decrease the risk of civilian casualties, and it would signal that we’re not serious about containing Iran or its proxies,”—a reminder of how the need, by both the Saudis and the US, to confront Iran trumps any need to address what has been described by the UN as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. For those pushing of some sort of decisive action in relation to the crisis in Yemen, the result of the vote is quite disheartening. The one positive that can be drawn from it, is that the result was a narrow one—which can only mean that slowly there is a growing acceptance amongst some in the US, that the country’s unofficial backing of the war is having deadly consequences for people on the ground in Yemen.

Nevertheless, much needs to be done to get a majority of policymakers to sing out the same hymn-sheet regarding the Yemeni war. And, considering what we now know about the conflict in Yemen, the insistence by a majority in the US Senate to continue to support this war is nothing less than appalling, especially when taking into consideration the fact that this upcoming weekend marks the third anniversary of the Saudi intervention in the country. That anniversary is set to come and go, with very little sign of progress in relation to the military campaign being waged there.

The conflict initially broke out after Houthi rebels (a Shia group from the country’s north) took the capital, Sanaa, from Yemen’s Saudi-backed ruler, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014. Since then, the conflict has become deadlier owing to the Saudi-led bombing campaign beginning in 2015, to restore the exiled government into power. The US has not formally backed the Saudi coalition, but as mentioned above, has instead provided targeted intelligence to the bombing campaign and assisted with refueling coalition bombers. In the time since then, it is fair to say that the war has shown no sign of stopping and instead, has created a humanitarian disaster that has so far claimed 13,500 lives and left roughly 20 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. The blame can be laid directly at the feet of both the Saudis and the Houthis, who have been accused of indiscriminately shelling civilian populated areas. Similarly, last year’s Saudi-led blockade of Yemen only served to worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country, leading to the deaths of more than 5,000 civilians (20 of them children). The optics of that action alone have put the Saudi military involvement in Yemen in a negative light, considering the difficulties already faced by the most vulnerable members of Yemeni society. 

In a recent article on The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan asked: “[i]s it not a moral outrage for one of the richest countries in the Middle East to be starving the poorest country in the Middle East?” The moral outrage he writes of does not appear to be felt in the corridors of power of the Saudi government—or at least, that is the sense you get when you read of how Yemeni aid campaigners recently challenged Saudi claims that it had lifted its aid blockade on Yemen. The disruptions, they say, are pushing up the price of oil and depriving hospitals of power. When those in a position to do something to alter the direction of the war choose not to, like the US and other countries that supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, and instead stress the importance of protecting one of its most important allies in the Middle East, it is difficult to see Saudi Arabia and its de-facto leader as being persuaded to rethink their whole approach to the conflict in Yemen. 

Arthur Jamo
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