US policy in Yemen may face growing challenge from Congress

If the Trump administration reduces its support, not only would relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE suffer but Iran would be the chief beneficiary.
Sunday 23/09/2018
US Defense Secretary James Mattis at a news briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. (Reuters)
Under pressure. US Defense Secretary James Mattis at a news briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. (Reuters)

The Trump administration is facing increasing criticism from members of the US Congress, human rights groups and prominent media outlets for its backing of the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict.

The administration, however, says that if it reduces such support, not only would relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suffer but Iran would be the chief beneficiary.

US support for the Saudi-led effort in Yemen began under the Obama administration in 2015 and involved air refuelling and intelligence and logistical assistance. A primary motive was to assure the Saudis and Emiratis that the United States had their backs despite their severe misgivings about the Iran nuclear deal.

A secondary motive was to send a signal to Iran, which provided military assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, that Tehran’s meddling in the Arab world would be checked.

The mounting civilian death toll in Yemen, which was due in part to Saudi air strikes, led the Obama administration to recalibrate its support during its last months in office. In August 2016, it scaled back a Joint Combined Planning Cell in Saudi Arabia that was coordinating US support for the anti-Houthi coalition and, a few months later, put a hold on the sale of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi Air Force.

US President Donald Trump took a much less nuanced view towards the conflict. His early outreach to the Saudis, harsh criticism of Iran and desire to show that he was doing things differently than Obama combined to provide unflinching support for the Saudi-led coalition. Trump lifted the hold on the precision-guided munitions to the Saudis in the first half of 2017.

Some in Trump’s administration cautioned that the conflict was essentially a stalemate. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, during a trip to Riyadh in April 2017, said publicly that Yemen needed a “political solution.”

Mattis, however, like other Trump administration officials, opposed proposed legislation in early 2018 that advocated invoking the War Powers Resolution, which requires the president seek congressional support for any US military engagement on the conflict in Yemen. Mattis argued that the United States was not a belligerent in the conflict and, therefore, the War Powers Resolution should not apply. The fact that the legislation was defeated by only 11 votes (55-44) in the US Senate showed growing congressional concern.

Members of Congress who opposed US military support for the Saudi-led coalition were reacting to criticism of the air campaign from the United Nations, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations that reported a large number of civilian deaths and a severe lack of food and medicine.

All this ran up against the Trump administration’s anti-Iran campaign. In December 2017, for example, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed fragments of a missile allegedly fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia that had Iranian markings on it to underscore Iran’s malign activities in Yemen.

Soon after Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed 12 demands that Iran would have to comply with to avoid crippling sanctions. Those included an end to its intervention in regional affairs and conflicts, such as Lebanon and Yemen.

However, continuing Saudi air strikes against the Houthis — such as one August 9 that killed more than 40 Yemeni children — reinvigorated opposition in Congress. US Senators Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, proposed a measure requiring the Trump administration to certify that, for US military aid to continue, the Saudi-led coalition was doing enough to protect civilians in Yemen in.

Not unexpectedly, on September 11 the administration notified Congress that Saudi Arabia and its allies were “making every effort to reduce the risk to civilian casualties” and facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries.

With an offensive by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, through which 70% of humanitarian aid passes, under way, the administration’s positive certification was sharply criticised by members of Congress as well as the Washington Post. In a September 16 editorial, the newspaper said legislators should not let the administration’s flouting of congressional restrictions stand.

If the Democrats win control of Congress in the November midterm elections, more onerous restrictions on US military aid to the Saudi-led coalition are likely to be proposed and, no matter how much the Trump administration invokes the Iran threat, Congress could tie its hands by not including a national security waiver to restrictive legislation.

Shaheen and Young have warned that if civilian deaths do not stop, “Congress may reach a breaking point.”