Washington, DC – The United States Senate, angered by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, voted 63-37 on Wednesday to take up a war powers resolution that would curtail the Trump administration’s military backing for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
The procedural vote signals a break between leading Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump. It sets up a highly public legislative fight beginning next week over the US’s role in the Yemen civil war and by extension, the US’s strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia in the war.
The timing of the Senate vote was prompted by the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, which CIA analysts have tied to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The president and his top aides have said there is no “direct” evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the murder.
Senator Mike Lee said that “Intelligence suggests, despite his repeated denials, that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia himself ordered the murder.”
The Utah Republican and critic of the war in Yemen, added that “Saudi Arabia’s moral depravity has only been made plainer. This is not an ally that deserves our support or military intervention on its behalf, especially when our own security is not itself on the line.”
More 14 million civilians in Yemen now face starvation without the flow of international food aide, senators said, citing figures from humanitarian groups. Aid groups estimate 85,000 children may have died of hunger and cholera while more than 16,200 civilians have been killed, largely by Saudi-led bombings.
“The bombing of children in a school bus and other civilian targets, is not something I want America’s fingerprints on,” Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and senior foreign policy leader, said. “I call on the administration again to develop a cogent strategy and work with other nations” to bring an end to the civil war in Yemen
On August 9, a Saudi coalition air raid on the Dahyan market in Saada, using US-made weapons, killed 40 people and injured 60 more. At least 21 schoolboys under the age of 15 were among those killed, according to the UN.
Mattis, Pompeo briefing
Hours before the Senate vote, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis briefed senators behind closed doors on the situation in Yemen and the wider Middle East in an effort to convey to senators the administration’s view that larger issues are at stake than the Khashoggi murder. Both Pompeo and Mattis told reporters afterwards that there is “no smoking gun” linking the Saudi crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder.
CIA Director Gina Haspel, who has listened to an audio tape of the killing and reviewed evidence assembled by Turkish authorities, did not participate in the briefing despite senators demands to hear directly from her.
“We had a briefing today that was very unsatisfactory,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in floor remarks. “As to whether the crown prince was involved in this killing, I believe that he was. I believe that he ordered it. I do not have a smoking gun, but what I do know is that he was in charge of this agency that carried out the killing.”
Simmering for months
Outrage in Congress over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has simmered for months. The Republican-led Senate voted 55-44 on March 20 to delay action on the same resolution in order to give the Trump administration more time to try to bring the conflict in Yemen to a resolution.
Now with the midterm elections behind them, amid doubts about Prince Mohammed’s leadership and a lack of demonstrable progress in the Yemen war, the Senate is taking the first real steps to reassert congressional authority over US military action in the region.
“We are assisting them in targeting the areas in Yemen where they’re going to drop their bombs,” said Senator Richard Durbin, the No 2 Democrat leader in the Senate. “The United States has not been on the sidelines. We’ve been involved. Our military, the best in the world has been involved in helping the Saudis with this invasion of Yemen. They’ve discontinued the fueling mission, but other things continue. And the question we have to ask ourselves now is, why are we there?”
Under the US Constitution, only Congress has the authority to declare war against other nations. However, since September 11, 2001, the executive branch has claimed broad license for US military operations in the region including in Syria.
Congress gave former President George W Bush a green light to invade Afghanistan in 2001 with carte blanche authority to attack al-Qaeda forces anywhere. Later, Congress in 2002 approved the US war against Iraq. Former President Barack Obama relied on those authorisations to conduct a global so-called ‘war on terror’, including the US campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIL) in Syria.
Congress has not authorised military operations in Yemen.