Senators challenge US role in Yemen war

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned senators in a closed-door briefing that support for Riyadh was crucial.
Friday 30/11/2018
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters at the US Capitol after briefing senators in Washington, DC on November 28, 2018. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters at the US Capitol after briefing senators in Washington, DC on November 28, 2018. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Strong support for Saudi Arabia with the aim of building a coalition against Iran and of winning billion-dollar contracts for US companies has been a key doctrine of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy. That, however, is being challenged by US senators, especially considering support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Unimpressed by statements from US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis justifying the administration’s approach, the US Senate voted 63-37 with rare bipartisan support, to move forward with legislation calling for an end to US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The result opens the way for the Senate to pass Joint Resolution 54, which would direct “the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorised by Congress.” Further debate is expected.

The vote, which was supported by some senators who had previously refused to punish Riyadh, was a strong rebuke for Trump’s approach from a chamber where the president’s Republicans have a majority. The administration’s reluctance to say Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was involved -- as others have alleged but the Saudis have denied -- in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October was a crucial factor in the Senate vote.

The administration will face a US House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats as of January.

Washington had stopped in-flight refuelling of military aircraft of the Saudi coalition in Yemen before the Senate vote but could now be forced to end intelligence sharing and the training of fighter pilots.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries have been battling in Yemen since 2015 to restore a government driven out by the Houthis, Shia Muslim fighters whom Yemen’s neighbours view as agents of Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created what has been reported to be the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency.

In a wider sense, the vote throws doubts on Trump’s strategy to make Riyadh a cornerstone of his Middle East policy. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has developed a close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed as he develops a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with support from Riyadh. Trump has sided with Riyadh in its conflict with Qatar and has stressed Saudi Arabia’s role as a major oil producer.

Pompeo warned senators in a closed-door briefing that support for Riyadh was crucial. “Degrading ties with Saudi Arabia would be a grave mistake for US national security, and that of our allies,” he said in prepared remarks. “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in an otherwise fraught Middle East.” Abandoning or downgrading the US-Saudi alliance would “do nothing to push Riyadh in a better direction at home.”

Senators criticised the White House for refusing to send CIA Director Gina Haspel to testify, although she had travelled to Turkey after Khashoggi’s death to evaluate results of a Turkish investigation. US Senator Bob Menendez, from New Jersey and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speculated that Haspel didn’t attend because she “would have said with a high degree of confidence” that Crown Prince Mohammed was involved in Khashoggi’s killing.

The administration has said there is no conclusive evidence to tie the crown prince to Khashoggi’s death. “We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun,” Mattis said.

Trump has opposed punitive measures against the crown prince, saying such a move could jeopardise Saudi arms deals with US companies worth more than $100 billion but those arguments did not seem to convince sceptics in the Senate.