The anti-Saudi coalition in Congress is pushing with a vengeance to end U.S. backing in Yemen, the latest reflection of the schism the civil war has created within U.S. policymaking.
For months, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been pushing legislation that would require the State Department to regularly certify that Saudi Arabia is taking urgent steps to end the Yemen conflict and ease the humanitarian crisis there, steps that would include lowering the risk to civilians. In a recent Senate Foreign Relations hearing, several Senators presented criticism of ongoing American support for the Saudi led campaign, and the detrimental impact it is having on the country. Paul Young, a Republican from Indiana, decried the “worsening humanitarian crisis” and highlighted the lack of stability in the country as a security threat to other U.S. allies and the region as a whole. Another participant, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut called out the excessive Saudi strikes in Yemen, claiming the Kingdom executes an average of 15 sorties a day in the country. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire summed up the position of the faction:
"The Senate has yet to take decisive action to influence the Saudi-led military operations and protect innocent civilians in Yemen [...] it's long past time to send a strong message to Saudi leadership that we have high expectations for our allies, particularly those who are benefiting from US military support."
Regarding the humanitarian crisis at least, these lawmakers certainly have facts to back up their position. The conflict in Yemen has left an estimated 10,000 civilians dead, 75% of the population in need of aid, and 8 million are on the brink of starvation as cholera ravages Yemen's cities.
The clamoring by Senators elicited pushback from the administration. Ambassador David M. Satterfield, the State Department's Middle East Envoy, told the panel of Senators that the U.S. assistance to the Saudis “supports important US national security and diplomatic objectives” in securing the region and that pulling material and logistical backing would endanger those interests.
The Saudis for their part have been trying to paint themselves as the answer to America’s concerns in Yemen.
The Saudi coalition, for instance, has been reporting on the targeting of terror cells in Yemen, even ones that are not directly connected to the civil war. Saudi officials reported on Thursday 19 April, that coalition forces had eliminated two Al Qaeda leaders during an engagement in the southern Abyan Province. The two men, Murad Abdullah Mohammed al-Doubli and Hassan Basurie, were described by officials as “the most dangerous leaders” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Saudi Arabia has also begun investing heavily on the humanitarian side in Yemen. The Saudis have long received flack from the international community for perpetuating the crisis by blockading Yemen. Now the Kingdom is receiving recognition for supporting the effort to alleviate the suffering in the country. The United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently commended Saudi Arabia for substantial donations toward disease prevention and treatment in Yemen. The donations will reportedly also provide support for the water and sanitation sectors in the country.
What these reports should signal is that the Saudis are at least willing to respond to U.S. concerns with the ongoing fighting in Yemen (no doubt directly connected to the more “cooperative” policy attitude of the moderate-oriented Prince Muhammad).
Whether or not this will help quell the concerns of the Foreign Relations Committee isn’t clear. But at least administration officials can present some indication that the Saudis are trying to be an asset and not a liability.