Critical lawmaker highlights ‘humanitarian nightmare’ in Yemen war as reason not to transfer $500m in bombs to Riyadh.
US politicians are set to debate a resolution that would limit “unauthorised” American involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but the bill is unlikely to move past the House of Representatives, analysts say.
H.CON.RES.81 is expected to be debated on the House floor on Monday. It calls for the invocation of the War Powers Act to end US participation in the war in Yemen.
The act, introduced in 1973, requires Congressional approval for the country’s involvement in any war.
By aiding the Saudis in airstrikes that kill civilians, we are creating a security vacuum that allows groups like ISIS to gain a foothold.
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) November 13, 2017
According to Democratic Representative Ro Khanna, the resolution’s main sponsor, the bill “acknowledges that our government is assisting the Saudi refuelling, and acknowledges that such activity is unauthorised”.
Currently, the US provides midair refuelling for Saudi and UAE warplanes that are conducting air attacks in Yemen, as well as assistance with bomb targeting, Khanna said.
In another sign of his beliefs, the representative tweeted late on Monday in California: “By aiding the Saudis in airstrikes that kill civilians, we are creating a security vacuum that allows groups like [ISIL] to gain a foothold.”
The US has been supporting Saudi Arabia and its allies – mostly Sunni, Arab states – since March 2015, when the Kingdom intervened in neighbouring Yemen to push back Houthi rebels and reinstate the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and seven million are in dire need of food assistance.
The US began supporting the Saudi-led coalition through a decision by then-US President Barack Obama, who cited the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to justify US involvement.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has done the same.
Passed in 2001, the AUMF gives the president the power to “use force” against all “nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.
It has since been used as legal justification to involve the US in various conflicts around the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
For more than a decade, the US has carried out air attacks against al-Qaeda bases across Yemen, using the AUMF as a pretext.
This seems to be the result of mounting pressure on the US government to distance itself from a war that is causing so much human suffering.
The Obama administration used the same legal basis to support the Saudi-led coalition, which is targeting the Houthis, not al-Qaeda elements in Yemen.
“The war in Yemen is an entirely separate war from the fight against al-Qaeda, yet Congress has never authorised it,” the authors of H.CON.RES.81 highlighted in a statement.
Debate on the bill was postponed earlier this month, when differences regarding the resolution’s objectives emerged between its sponsors and the House leadership.
A compromise was reached following weeks of internal debate, but the bill was stripped of its privileged status, meaning it is no longer fast-tracked for an on-the-record vote.
Despite the setback, Khanna’s office confirmed to Al Jazeera that the bill’s sponsors are still hoping to push for an official vote following the congressional debate.
Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa deputy programme director, told Al Jazeera that the bill may have been introduced due to international pressure over Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
“This seems to be the result of mounting pressure on the US government to distance itself from a war that is causing so much human suffering and in which all sides, including US ally Saudi Arabia, have been repeatedly accused of international humanitarian law violations,” Blecher said.
"It will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims."
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) November 9, 2017
More than 2,000 Yemenis have died in a cholera outbreak, now affecting nearly one million people who are unable to receive adequate medical assistance. According to the UN, the country is also on the verge of famine.
Although the attempt to strike up debate over the war comes more than two years after the Saudi-led coalition waged war on Yemen, analysts say US political and economic interests in the region are also factors behind its initial and continuing support for the war.
“The Obama administration had reservations about the Yemen war from the beginning, but supported the fight largely to show support for Saudi Arabia at a time when the relationship was strained by the Iran nuclear deal,” Blecher explained.
During the negotiations for the 2015 nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia had been largely sidelined.
Luciano Zaccara, a Gulf politics researcher at Qatar University, said that the US’ involvement in Yemen complied with the “long-term strategic alliance” it has with Saudi Arabia.
“The US was forced to support the war during Obama times due to the increasing sentiment of abandonment expressed in the GCC, on the benefit to Iran after the signing of the JCPOA,” Zaccara said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.
This, Zaccara added, was exacerbated when Trump shifted his administration’s attention towards shedding Iran’s role and significance in the Middle East, which includes “weakening the Iranian positions regionally – including Yemen”.
“Even if the bill is passed, American support for Saudi in Yemen would still be possible if the Trump administration considers that as a fundamental step in weakening Iran,” said Zaccara.
Will recent Middle East developments factor?
Analysts often describe the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Recent developments in Saudi Arabia – including the sacking and detention of senior ministers and princes – came in the context of a regional power play by Saudi Arabia against Iran, analysts say.
Many noted that the moves aimed to consolidate the authority of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the mastermind of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Most recently, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a Houthi ballistic missile attack that targeted Riyadh.
While the US bill was introduced prior to these developments, analysts say they may play a factor in the debate.
“[Mohammed bin Salman’s] latest moves are in part designed to shift attention from this disastrous war,” said Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as the chief of staff of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“In their attempt to help him do so, some members of the US Congress want to continue US support for the Saudis in Yemen,” Wilkerson told Al Jazeera. “But this is very bad policy … Efforts are emerging now because some congressmen have been awakened to the fact that the president has abused the US constitution with respect to the war power.”
If the bill does pass, it is unlikely to lead to any tangible change, said Lawrence.
“The US Congress is very fearful that if it does not support the coalition, Riyadh might agree to denominate oil sales in a currency other than the US dollar,” he explained.
But according to Yemen expert Adam Baron, these efforts are not new and are largely based on existing US-Saudi relations.
“I think they’re largely picking up steam just because the war is dragging on,” Baron told Al Jazeera.
“At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is a key US ally and their security was threatened by the Houthis’ takeover of Yemen,” he added. “I’d say that was the primary reason that the US backed the coalition … I’d be surprised if the bill passes Congress.”