December 14, 2018

IntelBrief: The Yemen Policy Debate Heats Up

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrives to give House members a classified security briefing, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not shown, on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite).
  • The October killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shifted U.S. congressional opinion sharply against Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
  • Congress is seeking to compel the Trump administration to cease all logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
  • Despite congressional opposition, President Donald Trump is maintaining U.S. cooperation with the Saudi leadership, including in Yemen.
  • Congressional sentiment has caused Mohammad Bin Salman and his allies to signal a flexibility to find a solution to the Yemen conflict for the first time since the war began.


The U.S. Senate sent a strong message to the Trump administration in mid-December by passing a resolution that would essentially end U.S. logistical support (aerial refueling, arms resupply, intelligence cooperation) to the Saudi-led coalition that has battled the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen since 2015. The resolution is unlikely to become law, as the House of Representatives is might not pass it and, even if it does, there is not enough support in both chambers of Congress to override a certain veto by President Trump. But, the Senate action signals how sharply congressional sentiment has shifted against a stalwart U.S. ally since the October killing of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Previous congressional efforts to sanction the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen by blocking pending arms sales to the Kingdom were voted down, though by progressively narrower margins.

The Khashoggi killing has made congressional opposition to U.S. involvement in Yemen both more intense and more bipartisan, with a growing number of Republicans joining Democrats on the issue. Earlier in 2018, Congress enacted a provision in the annual defense authorization bill requiring the administration to certify—as a condition of continuing the aerial refueling of Arab coalition combat aircraft operating in Yemen—that the coalition is supporting and assisting U.N. peace efforts in Yemen and taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. The administration made that required certification, even though most experts doubt that the Saudis and Emiratis were complying with the certification requirementspaving the way for continued U.S. cooperation with the coalition in Yemen. To try to head off further congressional action in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, in early November the United States nonetheless ceased one aspect of its support—the refueling Arab coalition aircraft. Still, further congressional efforts to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and take other steps against the Kingdom have been announced.

Congressional efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen contradicts the consistent congressional hard line against Iran, the main backer of the Houthis. Recognizing that congressional sentiment on Iran, a recent Senate briefing by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, ostensibly on the Khashoggi killing, focused primarily on the pivotal role Saudi Arabia plays in rolling back Iranian influence in Yemen. In opposing U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict, Congress apparently views withdrawing support for Mohammad Bin Salman and association with Saudi-led actions in Yemen as higher priorities than blunting Iranian influence.

Even though President Trump has opposed altering U.S.-Saudi relations as a consequence of the Khashoggi killing, and most U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen continues, the damage to the Saudi reputation in the United States has been severe. Some in Congress have called for Mohammad Bin Salman to be ousted as heir apparent, others for him to be sanctioned by the United States as a human rights abuser, and still others want to block planned U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with the Kingdom. The congressional criticism has set the Crown Prince and his allies, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), scrambling for ways to mollify congressional sentiment. In recent days, the Crown Prince has signaled some flexibility toward Qatar, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to isolate since 2017, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have indicated they want to end their involvement in Yemen if an acceptable political solution can be found. As a sign of possible progress, the warring parties agreed to a ceasefire in the battle for the port city of Hodeida on Thursday. Yet, combat elsewhere in the war-torn country continues and U.S. congressional unrest over the Khashoggi killing has not, to date, materially altered the U.S.-Saudi relationship in any meaningful way.        


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