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INTERVIEW: Ro Khanna says ending Yemen war should be a priority for Biden

Progressive congressman has been helping lead efforts in Washington against US support for Saudi-led coalition; a new administration may finally listen to him
Khanna had a message to outgoing President Trump: 'Don't make matters worse. You've done enough damage' (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

When Congressman Ro Khanna introduced a resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen without the backing of congressional leaders in September 2017, it appeared more like a statement against the violence with a minimal chance of passing.

In April 2019, after Democrats took control of the House and amid growing anger against Riyadh after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the bill passed with bipartisan support. The measure invoked, for the first time ever, the War Powers Resolution, which allows Congress to halt US military action taken without congressional approval.

President Donald Trump vetoed the resolution. But with that last obstacle soon to be gone and a new administration led by President-elect Joe Biden committing to halting America's role in the conflict, Khanna is renewing his call to end the war.

'They no longer have carte blanche in Washington. They've already lost credibility on the Hill, and there's going to be a new administration in town'

- Ro Khanna on Saudi Arabia

In a phone interview with Middle East Eye on Tuesday, Khanna called on the incoming administration to swiftly end US involvement - a move that he said would help propel talks brokered by UN envoy Martin Griffiths and bring peace to the war-torn country.

"I believe we can help Griffiths end the war with a strong statement from the president in signing the War Powers Resolution that we passed in the House and the Senate and making clear that the United States is not going to provide any support to the Saudis - logistical, intelligence or spare parts in this brutal campaign," Khanna told MEE.

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"If we do that, that will give Griffiths the leverage he needs to finally end the war."

'Time is up'

The congressman, a leader in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who served as the national co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, also called for the kingdom to pay reparations for the conflict by covering most of a $5bn-aid package to Yemen.

The War Powers Resolution needs to be reintroduced and passed by the new Congress before reaching Biden's desk, but Khanna is confident that the process can be completed shortly after the new administration takes office.

"Once it passes both chambers, the president would need to sign it and then Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken can convey to the Saudis that time is up; that they need to end this war and they need to make amends, and they need to pay reparations for the damage they've done," Khanna said.

"They no longer have carte blanche in Washington. They've already lost credibility on the Hill, and there's going to be a new administration in town. That all can be done in the first 30 days. And Joe Biden has the moral compass to do this." 

Biden will take office on 20 January. The president-elect has pledged repeatedly to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

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"Donald Trump has given the government of Saudia Arabia a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies, including the ongoing war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the crackdown on dissent at home, including the targeting of female activists," the Biden campaign said in a statement to Arab-American communities in August.

"Biden will review the US relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia and end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen."

Rights groups are now calling on the president-elect to follow through with this promise as soon as he ascends to the White House.

On Monday, more than 80 anti-war organisations penned a letter to Biden urging an end to Washington's assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.

"We know that you have an enormous task ahead of you and that there are a number of critical domestic and foreign policy issues that need to be addressed on day one of your term," the statement said.

"As organizations representing millions of Americans concerned about the grave crisis in Yemen, we urgently ask that you include bringing an end to US participation in the war in Yemen."

It was signed by prominent advocacy groups, including Democracy for the Middle East Now (DAWN), Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Code Pink, Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Center for International Policy and Win Without War.

The organisations issued a list of demands to the incoming president: signing a War Powers Resolution; ending weapons sales to Riyadh and its allies that could be used in the war; halting all US logistical support to the coalition; pressuring the kingdom to reopen Yemeni ports and the Sanaa airport to commercial flights; and expanding US humanitarian assistance to the war-torn country.

Credit to peace activists

On Tuesday, Khanna slammed a proposed $23bn US arms deal with the UAE, which includes F-35 advanced jets and Reaper Drones. 

Citing the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved the sale last month, but Congress still has a chance to stop it.

"I am concerned, especially given the UAE's huge role in the Yemen war. I don't think that peace can be achieved based on the transfer and sale of weapons," Khanna told MEE. 

'I don't think that peace can be achieved based on the transfer and sale of weapons'

- Ro Khanna, US congressman

"While I'm glad that the UAE has recognised Israel, that doesn't mean that we start to supply them with weapons that can lead to an arms race, and that can give them more of an opportunity to commit atrocities like they have in Yemen."

The war in Yemen started in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its regional allies - chiefly the United Arab Emirates - launched a bombing campaign to drive the Houthi rebels out of the capital Sanaa and reinstall the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Riyadh considers the Houthis to be proxies of Tehran, but Iran denies providing material support to the Yemeni rebels.

For years, the conflict has been at a standstill, but the suffering it has caused remains ongoing. The war has killed more than 100,000 people, brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine and caused outbreaks of preventable diseases, including cholera. 

"Human rights groups and the United Nations have documented the ongoing violence in Yemen and the ongoing blockade and the potential for mass starvation and hunger, particularly young children. The Covid crisis has made things worse," Khanna said.

The congressman, a 44-year-old California Democrat, credited anti-war groups for the growing momentum behind the effort to end the conflict.

"I give a lot of credit to the organisers, the peace activists, the human rights groups that mobilised," he said. "And then I believe the murder of Khashoggi was a turning point."

Khanna added that a return to the Iran nuclear deal and prospect of broader diplomatic engagement in Iran can help secure a long term solution to the Yemeni crisis.

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"We need to have better diplomatic relations with Iran to de-escalate in Yemen," he said. 

"We need the authority of the UN to come in and figure out how to have a peacekeeping presence in Yemen and a new regime. But the Saudis have no reason to be in Yemen and they should realise that."

But on his way out, Trump appears to be moving to make a return to the nuclear deal more difficult. The multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy.

The outgoing administration is piling duplicative sanctions on Iranian entities and individuals. And late last week, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated outside of Tehran, with Iranian officials pointing the finger at Israel. 

Khanna had a message to the soon-to-be-former-president on foreign policy: "Don't make matters worse. You've done enough damage. Let Biden come in and restore some sense of diplomacy and order."

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