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No more loopholes: ban all US assistance in Yemen war now

Sens. Sanders and Markey and Rep. Khanna want to cut off all aid to Saudi Arabia. But will their efforts survive NDAA vote?

Analysis | Middle East

Almost three years after the 2019 Congressional vote to end U.S. participation in Saudi operations in Yemen, and almost a year after President Biden took office promising to end the war, the conflict in Yemen and the accompanying humanitarian catastrophe continue.

 According to the UN, some 2.3 million Yemeni children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition due to the conflict, and at least four children are being killed by violence each day. The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs has identified the Yemen conflict as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with tens of millions at risk of starvation and dependent on aid. Furthermore, Yemen has received less than a third of the aid necessary to keep its people alive.

The current debate on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) offers Congress a critical opportunity to end U.S. complicity in this war. Decisive Congressional action now through a clear ban on support for Saudi war efforts — specifically the amendment proposed by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in the Senate, and the similar language added to the House version of the bill by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) — is the step needed towards ending America’s role in  Yemen’s crisis.

The Saudi assault on Yemen could not be effectively sustained today without U.S. support, which has been central to the war effort from the start. The Saudi bombing campaign and its devastating blockade of fuel and food to Yemen could not continue without U.S. logistical assistance to the Saudi Air Force. Recognizing U.S. complicity in the war and its terrible human cost, Congress has several times previously acted to limit or end our support for Saudi military activities in Yemen. Most recently, in 2019 Congress passed a joint resolution to end U.S. participation in  the Yemen war, which was vetoed by President Trump.

In February 2021, soon after taking office, the Biden Administration stated that it was ending support for “offensive operations” by the Saudis in Yemen. Unfortunately the concrete meaning of this statement has been elusive at best, as Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have continued at a rapid pace. According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi air force has already conducted over 1000 bombing raids in Yemen so far this year. The Saudi-enforced embargo of critical fuel and food supplies through Yemen’s Red Sea ports has continued as well. The latest UN data shows that fuel imports to Yemen are even lower than they were in 2020, while food imports have hardly increased. The Saudi-led coalition’s near-complete embargo on fuel imports is a key driver of the economic crisis, making basic needs unaffordable and crippling medical care.

Surveying the evidence recently, Brookings Institution expert and longtime National Security Council official Bruce Riedel and the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline concluded that the Biden Administration has broken its promise to end U.S. complicity in the Yemen war, and that “the U.S. remains entangled with, and implicated in, the Saudis’ futile and catastrophic war.” As Riedel stated in Congressional testimony, U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia to fight this war is inimical to our national interests in the Persian Gulf, has benefited Iran by increasing their influence in Yemen at a low cost, and has placed America in a “position where we are an ally of Saudi Arabia in a murderous campaign against the poorest country in the Arab world.”

In light of the administration’s failure to address the issue, only decisive legislative action to cut off U.S. support for Saudi military operations will be effective. Previous Congressional attempts to pressure the Biden administration have failed. These efforts include a 76-member House letter in April urging the administration to use “all available leverage” to get the Saudis to lift the blockade of Yemen, a letter from 16 Senators in May demanding that the U.S. use all available leverage to end Saudi aggression, and a June letter from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling for the administration to protect the Yemeni people from further suffering. Not only has the White House been unresponsive, but it has recently approved additional arms sales of offensive weapons to the Saudi military, directly contradicting Biden’s pledge.

The current NDAA includes several potential provisions that purport to address the Yemen issue, but only the amendment advanced by Senators Markey and Sanders in the Senate (and mirrored by the Khanna amendment in the House) will decisively end U.S. complicity in the war. Other Yemen-related language incorporated into the NDAA includes loopholes and does not clearly require an end to U.S. support for Saudi operations in Yemen.

For example, there is currently language in the Section 1272 of the base text of the Senate NDAA which prohibits Defense Department support for “offensive operations” by the Saudis in Yemen, but also permits the Secretary of Defense to issue an unlimited number of waivers to this restriction if he determines that a waiver is in the “national security interests of the United States.” Not only does this replicate the current ineffective administration position of cutting off assistance only for so-called “offensive” operations in Yemen, but it gives the administration effectively unlimited ability to override the ban.

An amendment by Rep. Meeks in the House-passed NDAA would be even less restrictive. It only cuts off support to specific units of the Saudi military that are identified by the Biden administration as having engaged in “offensive” airstrikes that clearly resulted in civilian casualties. This allows the administration to retain discretion over continuing support to the Saudi military, and permits unlimited support to continue so long as it is not channeled through military units that have been linked to civilian casualties — a very difficult process when it comes to a third party military operations in a war zone.

In contrast, SA-4535 to the Senate NDAA, advanced by Senators Sanders and Markey, clearly prohibits all U.S. assistance to the Saudi military for any operations in Yemen, including critical logistical support to the Saudi air force engaging in bombing raids. Similar language has been incorporated into the House-passed NDAA thanks to an amendment by Rep. Khanna. Given the failed multi-year history of attempts to stop U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen — including  Biden’s failure  to end such support this year — only this kind of definitive language from Congress will be effective.

Ending U.S. complicity in the Saudi war in Yemen will likely force Saudi Arabia to end its devastating military campaign entirely. Leaving discretion to the executive branch clearly will not work. Senate leadership should permit a floor vote on Markey-Sanders, the Senate should pass it, and the conference committee should ensure that the language remains in the final bill. After nearly seven years of war and blockade, Yemen can’t wait any longer.   

Water crisis in Taiz City, Yemen, 2018. (Shutterstock/anasalhajj)
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