The United States Congress is moving, albeit slowly, to curb American support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military offensive in the Yemeni civil war.
Revised language in the proposed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2019 will place conditions on the U.S. refueling of Saudi Arabian and Emirati planes used in airstrikes in Yemen. While the move is an important initiative, it lacks support from the executive branch, and is likely too conservative to have any major effect on Saudi Arabia and its allies’ policies in Yemen.
The NDAA 2019 bill passed the House by a vote of 351-66 on May 24 and the Senate on June 16 by a vote of 85-10. Since then it has been in committee to resolve differences between the two drafts. House and Senate Armed Services Committee staffers unveiled the latest version of the reconciled text on Monday, July 23. The revised language in the conference report includes a provision that will force the Saudi-led coalition to fulfill certain conditions before the U.S. agrees to refuel Saudi and Emirati planes. A senior staffer from the committee stated, “[Y]emen remains an area of intense interest and concern for our members, and we have aggressive oversight in the conference report,” as reported by The Hill.
One condition stipulates an initial certification process under which the U.S. Secretary of State must report to Congress within thirty days of the act’s passage that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are undertaking certain specific measures. These include “an urgent and good faith effort to support diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Yemen;” “appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by increasing access for Yemenis to food, fuel, medicine, and medical evacuation;” and “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations.” If these conditions are not met, “no Federal funds may be obligated or expended … to provide authorized inflight refueling of Saudi or Saudi-led coalition non-United States aircraft conducting missions in Yemen.” Other conditions call for subsequent certifications at 180 and 360 days following the act’s passage.
The international community, including the U.N., has condemned the Saudi-led coalition for its human rights abuses in Yemen, which U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Coalition forces are accused of committing egregious human rights violation. They have previously bombed schools, hospitals, homes, weddings, and funerals. According to the Yemen Data Project, around one third of the coalition’s airstrikes have hit non-military targets, killing more than 10,000 Yemenis over the last three years and displacing another three million people. Furthermore, Amnesty International released a report earlier this month detailing extensive human rights abuses committed in UAE-run prisons in Yemen.
The high civilian casualties in the Yemen war are of growing concern to U.S. lawmakers, although they have done little to crackdown on Saudi Arabia and its allies. In November 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution 366-30 denouncing Saudi targeting of civilian populations in Yemen and calling for “increase[d] efforts to adopt all necessary and appropriate measures to prevent civilian casualties and increase humanitarian access.” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) stated, “[T]his resolution makes abundantly clear that we cannot be assisting the Saudi regime in any of its fight with the Houthi regime. And we have to limit our involvement in Yemen to take on al-Qaeda and to take on the terrorists that threaten the United States,” as quoted by The Hill.
U.S. President Donald Trump, however, has been more reticent in taking action against the Saudi-led coalition and said that he “strongly objected” to conditions Congress is aiming to place on the Saudi-led coalition. He added, eerily echoing earlier statements regarding Charlottesville and Russia, that Saudi Arabia and its allies should not be penalized because they only represent “one side” of the conflict and that Iran and the Houthis are “equally responsible” for the dire humanitarian situation.
The Saudi campaign has raged against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. The U.S. has contributed billions of dollars to the Saudi military campaign, most of which goes towards arms, shared intelligence, and refueling aircraft. In May, the New York Times reported that American Green Berets have been stationed along the Yemen-Saudi border “in a continuing escalation of America’s secret wars,” where they are aiding Saudi forces in tracking and destroying ballistic missiles held by Houthi rebels.
The Yemen conflict dates back to the Arab Spring, when mass protests forced the resignation, in 2012, of longstanding Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was allied with the Shia Houthis. His successor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, severed ties with the Houthis and isolated the group when he came to power. The Houthis eventually forced his resignation in January 2015 following popular protests over dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions in the country. The Houthis, along with Saleh’s supporters, subsequently captured the presidential palace and placed a Revolutionary Committee in power. Hadi later fled to Saudi Arabia shortly before Riyadh intervened in the war in late March to back the Hadi regime.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had recorded as of February, 2018, 15,467 civilian casualties, with 5,974 killed and 9,493 injured in Yemen over a three-year period. “[A]nother 21 million Yemenis – 82 percent of the population – are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance,” according to the report.