This week the U.S. Senate is expected to consider its response to the cruel veto that President Donald Trump announced two weeks ago, of legislation from both houses of Congress that would force the administration to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen within 30 days
Can the voices of conscience muster enough votes in the Senate and the House to override the veto? When the initial resolution passed the Senate it won 54 supporting votes. A veto override requires 67 votes, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been on Capitol Hill doing the expected fear-mongering of trying to tie the Saudi war in Yemen to Trump’s broader campaign to “contain” or defeat Iran.
So the likelihood now is that the U.S. military will continue for some time to provide active assistance to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen that over the past three years has been the main perpetrator of the killing of at least 70,000 Yemenis, large numbers of them civilians. Many times that number of Yemenis have meantime died from hunger and disease sparked by the country’s devastating civil war.
For years now, I have been referring to Yemen as “Saudi Arabia’s Gaza”—that is, a nearly totally besieged place inhabited by large numbers of deeply impoverished people who are the target of punishing, high-tech assaults by the military of a much wealthier neighbor. (Or, in Yemen’s case, two neighbors: both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, UAE.)
There are differences of course. Yemen’s population is much larger–28 million, to Gaza’s two million– and Yemen’s terrain is both much larger than Gaza’s and much more mountainous.
The politics inside Yemen are also head-spinningly complex: Saudi Arabia and the UAE each have significant groups of Yemeni-citizen fighters and of foreign mercenaries who control large chunks of the country, and the Saudis claim the legitimate “president” of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, as their client… Meantime, the group controlling the national capital, Sana’a, is dominated by a big clan network called the Houthis, followers of an obscure sect of Shia Islam called the Zaidis, which has some religious and political ties to Tehran though they come from a different branch of Shi’a Islam. And large parts of the sparsely populated east of the country are controlled by the local branches of Al Qaeda and of ISIS.
In Yemen, as in Gaza, the wealthy, aggressive neighbors have received a lot of political support as well as copious military supplies from our government here in the United States. But in the case of Yemen, U.S. government support for the neighbors goes even further: Washington also provides direct military help to the aggressing military campaigns, in the form of real-time sharing of intelligence, help in organizing the “targeting” done by the Saudi warplanes, and actually doing the in-air refueling of these warplanes when their busy schedules of bombing Yemen require it.
It is this direct military support that the currently vetoed legislation would end.
Several aspects of the military support the U.S. gives to the Saudi-led coalition—and of the coalition’s war campaign itself—are notable. First, Saudi Arabia’s decision to jump deeply into what had previously been a series of essentially local and low-tech conflicts inside Yemen was the first major decision made by Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) after his father, Salman, was anointed king in Riyadh in January 2015.
When Salman became king he named MBS, his favored younger son, as Deputy Crown Prince and gave him the ministries of “defense” and economics to take over. Just two months later, in alliance with the UAE’s powerful and ruthless Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) and other Arab leaders, MBS announced the entry of Saudi Arabia’s massive, high-tech military into the war in Yemen. He gave this military campaign the swaggering name of “Operation Decisive Storm.”
If the operation was “decisive” in any way, it was only because it very speedily ended the lives of thousands of Yemenis and wrecked numerous installations like ports, roads, and bridges essential to the wellbeing of the country’s people. It was notably not “decisive” in forcing a defeat on the Houthis. One reason: MBS and his fellow Saudi royals never wanted to send ground troops into Yemen. (His ally, MBZ, was better organized and sent ground troops—though almost all of them not actually UAE nationals—into some areas of southern Yemen, where they committed numerous terrible atrocities, sometimes with US military “advisors” standing close by.)
And thus, since March 2015, Yemen has been locked into this terrible new series of mega-lethal conflicts, in which the U.S. military has for four years now been giving direct military support to the major non-Yemeni participant.
Worth recalling: Washington’s initial decision to support the Saudi war effort was made by Nobel “Peace” Laureate President Barack Obama, who maintained his support for the remaining two years of his term. Some of his advisors reportedly argued that supporting “Decisive Storm” would be a good way to “reassure” Saudi Arabia of continued U.S. support even though the Obama team was by then well into its very complex multi-party negotiation with Iran.
For Trump, the motivation to support the Saudi war effort is very different. It is almost certainly linked to two key aspects of his policy in the region: His determination to “contain” and if possible bring down the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his infatuation with MBS, who has been Saudi Arabia’s super-powerful Crown Prince since June 2017 and who has a very close friendship with Trump’s own “crown prince,” Jared Kushner.
On Monday Pompeo tried to provide a better reason to U.S. lawmakers regarding why they should continue to support Washington’s participation in the Saudi war effort: “Airplanes flying through King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh are at risk, and the United States has an obligation to protect our citizens,” he said at an event organized by The Hill.
(Whatever happened to travel advisories? They are the way the State Department has always sought in the past to protect U.S. travelers from harmful situations overseas… )
It is extremely good news that support has been building—even if only belatedly– in both houses of Congress for the legislation to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war effort in Yemen. Some of this new willingness to distance our country from Saudi Arabia doubtless comes from lawmakers’ disgust at the thuggish killing that people high up in MBS’s entourage, or quite possibly MBS himself, ordered last October for the well-connected Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. And some may have stemmed from the more recent news of Saudi Arabian authorities having beheaded 37 people.
But meantime, the brutality and the suffering in Yemen continue. A recent UNDP report warned that even if the country’s lengthy conflict could be ended this year, it would still be responsible for an estimated 233,000 deaths—102,000 from direct combat and 131,000 from other war-derived causes. There has long been a very shaky, on-again-off-again “peace process” between the warring parties, currently spearheaded by the United Nations, for some years now. But the prospect that the war might be ended this year is already a long shot.
It might go on very much longer than December 31. And of course, if Washington continues the military and political support it has long given to the nasty, aggressive campaign that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have waged against Yemen, then continued war and suffering are all that we can expect for Yemen’s people.
Will 67 Senators step up to the plate this week to prevent this happening? Let’s try to make that happen.