ON DECEMBER 13th, 2018, the U.S. Senate issued one of its most striking rebukes of President Trump yet. By a bipartisan vote of 56–41, the Senate passed Joint Resolution 54, which attempted to use the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to take control of the war in Yemen from President Trump and to Congress, and officially take a stand against the abuses committed by the Saudi-led coalition to which the U.S. supplies support and aid. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I, VT), Mike Lee (R, UT), and Chris Murphy (D, CT) co-sponsored the legislation, which was welcomed by groups such as Amnesty International. Before the vote, Bruce Reidel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, stated “While a vote… would be primarily symbolic, it will also be an unprecedented step to stop the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. Next year the new Congress can take more concrete action to stop the war.”
However, since the Senate vote in December, new allegations of the use of child soldiers by the Saudis in the conflict have arisen. The use of child soldiers in Yemen has been publicized for years, but have been limited to Houthi rebel forces. A UN report confirmed this earlier in 2018, finding that a majority of documented child soldiers in Yemen in 2017 were fighting for the Houthis. However, the recent allegations, first reported in The New York Times in December 2018, detail abuses not by the Houthis but by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, who have utilized mercenaries from Sudan as part of their coalition force, are accused of using Sudanese soldiers who were part of a militia in the Sudanese Civil War that committed war crimes. However, possibly most concerning is the allegation that the Saudis have recruited child soldiers from Sudan to fight their war in Yemen. The investigation from The New York Times found that the military uniforms supplied to these Sudanese children were allegedly American made.
Considering these new allegations against the Saudis, the question arises: will further concrete action against the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen ever come?
Democrats in Congress would certainly hope so, having so far supported actions to greater regulate U.S. presence in Yemen. In addition to the Senate resolution, House Democrats attempted a similar move last year. Spearheaded by Rep. Ro Khanna (D, CA), the Democrats behind the move issued a statement in September of 2018, saying, “We must take action to end U.S. participation in this catastrophic war in Yemen and work to bring about a peaceful conclusion to this conflict.” Ultimately, the effort was futile, and the legislation never made it out of committee. A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez (D, NJ) that aimed to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia found a similar fate in the Senate.
The fate of these two pieces of legislation offers a view of what’s to come for any broader action to regulate the Yemeni Civil War: it’s doomed to fail. Although many Republicans in Congress have been outspoken in condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the killing of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, SC) directly calling him “complicit” in the murder, ultimately they do not support any greater action to reduce the U.S. presence in Yemen than simply condemning the Saudis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) explained this, saying,
“I think every single member of this body shares grave concerns about the murder of Khashoggi and wants accountability. We also want to preserve a 70-year partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and we want to ensure it continues to serve American interests and stabilizes a dangerous and critical region.”
House Republicans acted on this sentiment late last year when they effectively blocked any Yemen-related legislation from being discussed there until the 116th Congress began this month.
While Democrats, with their new majority in the House, could now potentially pass legislation there to reduce the U.S. presence in Yemen in response to the illegal use of child soldiers in the conflict and other actions undertaken by the Saudi government, their greater efforts will most likely fail in the Senate. With a reduced presence in the Senate after the 2018 midterms, Democrats will have to rely on Republican swing votes even more so than previously, at a time when they are getting rarer. Some of the GOP senators most outspoken about Saudi Arabia are now retired, including former Sens. Jeff Flake (R, AZ) and Bob Corker (R, TN). Flake, for example, was among the Republicans who voted for the December 13th resolution.
Even if Democrats were to overcome the challenges and push legislation through the Senate that eliminated the involvement of the U.S. in the atrocities of the Yemeni Civil War, they would face their biggest hurdle yet: President Trump. The Trump administration has been one of the biggest supporters of Saudi Arabia, and President Trump has called efforts to scrap the billion-dollar arms sale deals with the Saudis “foolish.” Following the December 13 vote, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking vocalized the Trump administration’s position, saying, “We do believe that the support for the coalition is necessary. It sends a wrong message if we discontinue our support.” The Trump administration has placed a high priority on countering the presence of Iran in the region, and has countered the vote stating pulling arms sales to the Saudis would impair their ability to fight the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. As a result, the Trump administration has refused to back away from Saudi Arabia, despite the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, criticisms of the targeting of innocent civilians, and recent allegations of the use of child soldiers from Sudan.
Even after the December 13th resolution, the Trump administration has continued to support the Saudi war effort in Yemen in a myriad of ways, such as sourcing parts to repair Saudi warplanes and providing logistical support to the Royal Saudi Air Force. As stated by Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with Quartz, “This administration doesn’t intend to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Unless change occurs in the Senate or in the Trump administration’s policies towards the fighting in Yemen, the U.S. government will yet again officially turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed there by Saudi Arabia.