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Congress opts to keep supporting brutal war in Yemen, but activists say “tide is turning”

Congressional leaders sought to use the Saudi crown prince’s much-touted visit to press the White House and its powerful ally to end the spiraling war.

by Alexa Liautaud and Dan Ming
Mar 21 2018, 7:00pm

The Senate rejected a resolution Tuesday seeking to end U.S. involvement in Yemen’s spiraling civil war, which has killed thousands of civilians and thrown the country into the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations.

In a closer-than-expected result, lawmakers voted 55-44 against curbing U.S. military activity in Yemen, narrowly defeating the bipartisan legislation put forward by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. But human rights advocates were heartened by what they believe is a growing opposition to America’s unconditional support for Saudi Arabia’s controversial campaign in Yemen.

“Today should have been the day that the Senate moved to end U.S. involvement in this catastrophe.” said Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s policy lead for Yemen. “But it is clear from today’s debate that the tide is turning,”

Paul was likely referring to the timing of the vote, which, despite urgent requests from the White House and the Pentagon, took place just as Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman visited with President Donald Trump at the White House. Trump praised the young leader as a “very great friend” to America; hours later the Senate debated the bill.

Congressional leaders sought to use the Crown Prince’s much-touted visit to press the White House and its powerful Middle East ally to end the brutal war in Yemen, along with the U.S. military’s involvement in it. They did so while facing opposition from the executive branch and the military. Ahead of the visit, Secretary of Defense James Mattis penned a personal letter to U.S. senators, urging them to halt the vote, and warning that such an effort risked straining relations and compromising American interests in the region.

But there’s a reason the senators pressed forward with the vote. Bin Salman may be touted as Saudi Arabia’s young modernizing reformer, but he is also widely considered the architect of the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, which has had disastrous results for the country and its civilians.

The U.N. estimates that more than 8,750 civilians have died, with the majority of the deaths attributable to Saudi coalition airstrikes.

The U.S. has aided Saudi Arabia’s controversial air campaign from its inception, refueling coalition jets and providing intelligence and strategic support. The U.S. is also Saudi Arabia’s largest supplier of weapons, an aspect of the relationship that has received enthusiastic support from Trump.

With almost one-third of the estimated 16,000 Saudi coalition airstrikes since 2015 hitting civilian sites, monitors warn that the U.S. risks complicity in myriad potential human rights violations and war crimes.

“President Trump should recognize that by selling arms to a military force that is likely to use them unlawfully, he is putting U.S. officials at risk of aiding and abetting war crimes,” Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch wrote in a recent op-ed.

“This is a deeply destructive war,” added Adam Baron, co-founder of the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies. “There’s this tension with regards to whether U.S. involvement is either helping to end the war or extending the war further.”

The Saudi-led blockade has proved no less disastrous. Today, Yemen is considered the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. More than 22 million people need humanitarian aid, including 8.2 million who are on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Making matters worse, a cholera epidemic has swept through the country at lightning speed, infecting over a million people. Some 2,258 people died as a result of the epidemic between April 2017 and February 2018, according to the World Health Organization.

Still, advocates see a silver lining in Tuesday’s vote. Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration, said the bill was “a reflection of growing anxiety over the humanitarian situation in Yemen and a sense that Saudi Arabia hasn't exercised its caution as it should under the laws of armed conflict.”

Cover image: A man walks to a house that was damaged during an airstrike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Faj Attan village, Sanaa, Yemen May 7, 2015. (REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)