Can the U.S. Senate Reshape the Yemen War

On November 28, 2018, and again in March 2019, the Senate delivered an extraordinary rebuke of Saudi Arabia by advancing a measure to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, showing that some lawmakers believe that the United States  must prioritize American human rights ideals over the easier option of looking the other way.  This unprecedented November vote marked the first time in history that the Senate utilized its powers granted by the 1973 War Powers Act giving Congress the power to demand an end to military actions.

An airstrike in Sana’a, Yemen, November 2015. Image courtesy of Ibrahem Qasim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Through extensive media coverage, Saudi Arabia’s human rights atrocities came to international attention with the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. In another blow to Saudi Arabia, Senators unanimously approved a separate resolution to hold Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally responsible for the death of Khashoggi. While this may not have legal implications for the Crown Prince, the symbolic power of this resolution cannot be overlooked.

Given the partisan polarization in current U.S. politics, a bipartisan show of unity in the Senate is quite noteworthy and not easily achieved. This resolution came in direct contrast to President Trump’s November statement, where he wrote that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” regarding whether the crown prince had prior knowledge of Kashoggi’s killing.

President Trump argued that punishing Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death would risk billions of dollars of American arms sales to the kingdom, a figure that was thoroughly debunked by the Washington Post in a fact-checking piece by Glenn Kessler. Since 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition entered the war in Yemen, the United States has provided aid to the Saudi coalition, including conducting aerial refueling for gulf warplanes, sharing intelligence and supplying partner militaries with arm sales.

Appeasing the Saudis while containing Iran and its influence on the Houthi rebels in Yemen are the main reasons for continued U.S. support for the coalition. The Saudi coalition and its allies sees the Houthis as a similar threat as other Iranian-backed groups, like Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In reality, the Houthis have displayed little regional ambition, beyond recent missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in retaliation for Saudi air strikes.

While the Saudi coalition claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa, notes that historically Iran’s support for the Houthis has been limited. But, as the war drags on, the Houthis will grow more dependent on support from Iran and its allies.

Amnesty International has gathered evidence revealing that all parties in this conflict have committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. According to the United Nations, the war in Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – in desperate need of aid, food and protection.

Amnesty International has documented 36 air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law resulting in 513 civilian deaths (including at least 157 children) and 379 civilian injuries. Amnesty International also found that some attacks appeared to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian areas such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques, which would amount to war crimes.

NPR reported that the Senate vote ending U.S. support of the war in Yemen was most likely symbolic. The effort to end U.S. involvement in Yemen is still a long way from being finalized, as “the House would have to pass the resolution by year’s end and President Trump would have to sign it – two steps that likely will not happen.” Especially since, tacked to the at the end of a Farm Bill, was a move to strip privilege from all Yemen War Powers Resolutions, which effectively dooms a House vote on the Yemen War Powers Resolution this year.

While the Trump Administration has shown little to no interest in pressuring the Saudis and Emiratis over Yemen, the only real hope for a check to the Saudi coalition is Congress. While the Senate has taken the first step, the House must also follow suit. U.S. foreign policy must be anchored in its human rights ideals. If the United States desires to keep its standing in the world,  it cannot help further perpetuate one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. Government Agency.

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Sheila Archambault Helke

Sheila is a national security professional working in Washington, D.C. for the federal government. She focuses on counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Sheila graduated with an M.A. in international affairs from the Catholic University of America and a B.A. in international studies with a focus on the Middle East from the University of St. Thomas.
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