Washington, DC – The US Senate voted on Thursday to approve a resolution calling for an end to United States involvement in the Saudi-UAE-led military campaign in Yemen, setting the stage for a potential showdown next year between Congress and President Donald Trump over US military support for Saudi Arabia.
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US politicians have grown increasingly outraged as the number of civilians killed in Yemen by Saudi and UAE air attacks using US-made weapons has risen dramatically in the past two years. The Saudi-UAE coalition launched an intervention in 2015 through a massive air campaign targeting Houthi rebels.
The final vote of the Yemen resolution was 56-41, with seven Republicans breaking with their party to vote in support of the measure.
“Warfare involves a lot more than a single battlefield and lines of military personnel firing against each other with guns,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah, the leading Republican sponsor of the resolution, told Al Jazeera in a Capitol Hill press conference.
“There are a lot of aspects of modern warfare that involve cyber activity and there are certainly a lot of aspects of modern warfare that involve reconnaissance, surveillance, target selection and things like midair refuelling.”
Trump administration officials had urged Congress not to undermine the Pentagon’s ability to support Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen with Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described the conflict in private briefings for legislators as part of a larger regional contest with Iran. The Pentagon announced a suspension on November 9 of US aerial refuelling of Saudi and UAE combat aircraft.
Due to tactics used by the Republican leadership in the House, the lower chamber will not take up the Senate measure before adjourning, leaving the matter unresolved until the new Congress convenes in January.
Senators pointed to progress in UN-brokered peace talks and claimed pressure from Congress had pushed Saudis to make concessions.
Warring factions meeting this week in Rimbo, Sweden agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah and to exchange of 16,000 prisoners. The Houthis agreed to relinquish control of Yemeni ports, allowing desperately needed international aid to flow.
“The United States will no longer participate in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis on earth with already 85 thousand children starved to death,” Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who co-sponsored the resolution with Lee, said in remarks to the full Senate.
Outrage over Khashoggi’s murder
The Yemen resolution had been tabled by the Senate in a 55-44 vote on March 20, but after the October 2 killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, widespread anger in Washington prompted politicians to bring the Yemen measure forward.
Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents needed for his planned marriage.
After giving contradictory statements about the whereabouts of the writer, Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate and his body was dismembered. The kingdom maintains that Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the killing, which Turkey said was ordered at the highest level of Saudi leadership.
Despite reports of a CIA assessment that MBS at least had knowledge of the murder, Trump reiterated on Tuesday in an interview with Reuters news agency, that he stood by the crown prince.
The Senate on Thursday also unanimously adopted a separate, non-binding resolution condemning the Khashoggi murder and calling for a peaceful resolution to the Yemen war. Thursday’s action followed a series of procedural votes in the past two weeks that signalled broad dissatisfaction within the Congress about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“What the United States Senate said today, in a very loud way, is that we will not continue to have our military posture dictated by a despotic murderous regime in Saudi Arabia, a regime which does not respect democracy, does not respect human rights, a regime whose leader, nobody doubts, was involved in the horrific murder of a dissident journalist in the Saudi consulate in Turkey,” Sanders told reporters.
War Powers Act
For the first time in 45 years, the Senate Yemen resolution invoked the War Powers Act, a law passed by Congress to curtail President Richard Nixon’s continued deployment of US forces in the Vietnam War. The 1973 law provides that Congress, which holds sole authority to declare war, may restrain the president from deploying US forces by the passage of a joint resolution.
Whether the legislation will advance in the next Congress remains uncertain. Proponents said they intended to bring it forward.
“Unless and until we withdraw from those hostilities, unless and until we stop engaging as a co-belligerent in this war, I am going to keep pushing,” Lee said.
Democrats, who favour an end to the war in Yemen, will control the House of Representatives next year, but Republicans will retain control of the Senate and President Trump has threatened to veto the measure.
So long as war, famine and cholera continue to claim civilian lives in Yemen, and concerns about Prince Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder remain unanswered, members of Congress say they will seek to apply pressure on Saudi Arabia.
In addition to prohibiting military cooperation in Yemen, Congress can block future arms sales, impose sanctions and withdraw funding from joint projects.