WASHINGTON — While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was lobbying senators on Capitol Hill not to “pack up and abandon” the U.S. role in the Saudi-led coalition war on Yemen, the Senate voted 63-37 to consider a measure that would do just that, ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.
The vote was a striking departure from earlier this year, when the measure failed, and marks a new bipartisan desire in the Senate for the Trump administration to take a harder line on Saudi Arabia.
The bill proposed by Senators, Mike Lee and Chris Murphy would require President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops in or affecting Yemen within 30 days, though it would not affect troops fighting al Qaeda in Yemen. It’s expected to be considered on the floor next week.
Should it ultimately pass the Senate it would have little chance of clearing the House this year. But extended debate could serve as a powerful symbolic step — and allow lawmakers to address alternative paths in U.S.-Saudi relations in the future.
Lawmakers are exasperated with Trump’s reaction to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has been linked to Riyadh, and by the mounting humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen.
“The Saudis have gone off the rails,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told AFP. “They’ve killed more civilians this year than any year prior in the Yemen war.”
“They obviously made a giant strategic error in abducting and murdering Jamal Khashoggi,” Murphy added. “So, a lot has changed in the last few months to get us to this point.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-VT), said Sunday that he was confident the Senate will pass a resolution to pull back any kind of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, given the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post.
“I think we now have a chance to get a majority of the United States Senate,” Sanders said on “Face the Nation”, referring to the resolution he co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R- S.C.) explained his vote in support of advancing the bill, saying that he did so because he was “pissed”, even though he generally supports the war in Yemen.
“The way the administration has handled the Saudi Arabia event is just not acceptable,” Graham told reporters, in reference to Khashoggi’s death. The journalist’s murder last month in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has compounded lawmakers’ resistance to the war in Yemen. A growing list of Republicans and Democrats have raised concerns about Trump’sthe Saudis regardless of whether the CIA concludes that the Saudi crown prince was involved.
“The question for me is whether or not the CIA supports the conclusion, with a high degree of confidence, that the crown prince was complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Graham told reporters.
The White House said Wednesday that if the bill were presented to the president in its current form, his advisers would recommend that he veto it.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information,” Trump said in a statement released earlier this month, “but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.
“That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump added. “…The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
The CIA has intelligence substantiating an assessment that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The CIA’s assessment appeared to be largely based on the control held by the crown prince, suggesting that the murder could not have been carried out without his knowledge.
For nearly three years, Saudi Arabia has been backing Yemeni government soldiers, fighting a brutal war against Houthi rebels who have seized swaths of land. With weapons supplied by the U.S., Saudi Arabia is capable of much greater damage. The deadly cholera outbreak, leaving thousands dead. There are as many as 14 million people at risk of starvation in Yemen.has hit weddings, market and schools with airstrikes, according to a U.N. report, and aid groups say a Saudi blockade has contributed to a
Since 2015, U.S. armed forces have been providing Saudis with mid-air refueling for the military campaign and sharing intelligence with the Saudis that helps them with aerial targeting and bombing. Earlier this month, the U.S. ended the refueling support.
Senators’ skepticism about the Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s death intensified after the Guardian reported that the White House was preventing CIA Director Gina Haspel fromabout it. The CIA denied this was the case.
“The notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today’s briefing is false,” CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said in a statement.” The agency also said that it had briefed congressional leadership and Select Intelligence Committee members on all of the highly classified intelligence on the matter.
Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis briefed senators on Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi’s killing on Wednesday. Afterward, Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Pompeo and Mattis told senators that Haspel did not attend the briefing at the White House’s direction, directly contradicting national security adviser John Bolton‘s assertion that the White House was not blocking Haspel from meeting with lawmakers.
“We asked why Gina Haspel wasn’t there and the two that were there said that was a decision by the White House,” Durbin told reporters following the briefing.
Grahamto withhold his vote for any spending bill until he hears from the CIA directly.
“If that briefing is not given soon, it’s going to be hard for me to vote for any spending bill,” Graham told reporters, adding when asked for clarification, “I’m talking about any key vote, anything you need me for to get out of town; I ain’t doing it until we hear from the CIA.”
Mattis told reporters after the briefing that “we have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved.”
Yemen peace talks
Peace talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen have been set for early December in Sweden, between the Houthi Yemeni group and their allies and Yemeni forces loyal to exiled president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Mattis and Pompeo worry a move to stop U.S. support to the Saudis ahead of the summit is poorly timed and could embolden Huthis not to negotiate.
Senator Murphy, however, said Pompeo and Mattis’ testimony may have been counterproductive.
“They lost votes this morning,” he said.
“They just had no good answers for why Gina Haspel wasn’t there,” Murphy added. “They had no plan to end the war in Yemen.”
The Yemen conflict has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with the country now on the brink of famine.