At a little-noticed business meeting on Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took a step that could alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
On Tuesday, the Senate made strides toward attaching some long overdue conditions on US assistance to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. The legislation it approved, authored by Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), requires Saudi Arabia to meet four conditions in order to continue to receive aerial refueling for strikes against the Houthis:
1.) try to make peace urgently and in good faith;
2.) take measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, including by maintaining access through Red Sea ports;
3.) take action to reduce delays of import shipments; and
4.) take action to reduce the risk to civilians and civilian infrastructure from its air campaign.
These are four ways in which the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has consistently and manifestly failed to meet its responsibilities to the Yemeni people over the past four years. Without diminishing the responsibility of other parties in bringing about Yemen’s crisis—all parties are guilty of committing horrific violations and causing untold suffering for civilians—the humanitarian situation would dramatically improve if Saudi Arabia were to meet these conditions.
3 years of failed US policy in Yemen
For more than three years, the parties to Yemen’s civil war have laid waste to the country with little regard for most of its citizens. And for more than three years, the United States government has called for peace and urgent humanitarian relief. But those calls have rung hollow as the US—under the administrations of first President Barack Obama and now President Donald Trump—supported one side of that war, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, with intelligence, diplomatic cover, a steady stream of arms, and mid-air refueling of aircraft carrying out bombing runs against the Houthis and associated forces.
US assistance has come with no strings attached, as US-fueled Saudi airstrikes have obliterated Yemen’s critical economic infrastructure, giving rise to the world’s largest recorded cholera outbreak and a hunger emergency that has left nearly 8.5 million people on the verge of famine.
The Young-Shaheen resolution finally attaches some strings to US support, but it is has a number of problematic loopholes and gaps built in as well. The President can continue refueling even if Saudi Arabia fails to meet all of the conditions by simply waiving them–though this would require the President to outline the conditions not met, which would be politically difficult for the US and embarrassing for Saudi Arabia. A bigger issue is that the legislation requires only “efforts,” “appropriate measures,” and “appropriate actions” by Saudi Arabia—and the arbiter of whether these efforts, measure, and actions are taken is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The State Department under both Obama and Trump administrations have shown a worrying tendency to give its Saudi partners the benefit of the doubt, which they have never earned.
State officials have repeatedly promised that Saudi Arabia is taking steps toward peace, doing its part to alleviate the humanitarian situation, and taking steps to reduce civilian casualties—even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Should the State Department once again certify Saudi Arabia’s progress—this time in a formal capacity to Congress – it could serve to further shield Saudi Arabia from reasonable criticism and legitimize a military intervention that is divorced from any realistic political strategy. Thankfully, Senator Chris Muprhy (D-CT), working together with the measure’s sponsors, worked hard to tighten and clarify the requirements.
Next steps: Young-Shaheen should be signed into law and the Senate should block a new arms sale
The Committee’s approval of Young-Shaheen builds momentum toward accountability. In the immediate term, it may amended onto the National Defense Authorization Act, the one piece of legislation that reliably passes each year. The House of Representatives are considering other Yemen-related amendments to the NDAA, such as Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) measure to require a report on whether the US or its coalition partners have violated any US laws as they prosecute the war in Yemen. In addition, the Senate will likely consider a new sale of precision-guided munitions, the same weapons that Saudi Arabia is using in attacks that have destroyed schools, hospitals, and other critical social service and economic infrastructure. Having staked out a bold position demanding progress in alleviating Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, this is no time for mixed signals. The Senate must reject any new sale of arms that could be used in the war in Yemen, particularly as the parties, including Saudi Arabia, continue to demonstrate such blatant disregard for civilian welfare.
As for Young-Shaheen, if it is successfully amended to the NDAA, it will likely be signed into law. At that point, the best case scenario would be a sea change in Saudi Arabia’s approach to the conflict in Yemen, resulting in a political settlement, liberalized imports, and a revitalized economy that would enable Yemenis to afford household commodities and access basic public services. This will also require flexibility and accountability from the Houthis and other parties, and there is reason to believe that pushing the coalition to be a more responsible actor will actually create incentives for others to refrain from abuses and work towards a realistic political settlement. If the coalition’s approach does not change, however, we must demand that the State Department offer an honest accounting of Saudi Arabia’s role in bringing about and exacerbating the world’s largest humanitarian emergency.