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Congress tried to end US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Here's how it failed

As lawmakers bickered in Washington, Yemenis were mired in world's worst humanitarian crisis
Government soldiers in central Yemeni city of Taiz last October (Reuters/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Almost two years after a resolution was first introduced, efforts in the United States Congress to end American support for the war in Yemen came to an unsuccessful end this week.

The proposed legislation, which invoked for the first time a 1973 law that gives Congress the power to end US military interventions it did not authorise, was a signature away from becoming legally binding.

Instead, the Senate on Thursday failed to overturn Donald Trump's veto, effectively ending US lawmakers' hard-fought attempt to force the president to end American assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

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But as Democrats and Republicans bickered over the conflict and the US's role, the misery did not stop in Yemen.

In fact, the UN says the country now faces the world's worst humanitarian crisis as a result of the war.

The conflict, initially in 2015 between Houthi rebels and the government of Rabd Mansour Hadi, intensified when Saudi Arabia and its regional allies soon intervened to push back the Houthi rebels. It has has pushed millions to the brink of famine and caused the spread of disease.

If the war in Yemen continues until 2030, the death toll could rise to about 1.8 million, according to a UN-commissioned study by the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Here's a look back at how US lawmakers tried - but failed - to end US logistical support for Saudi-led forces in Yemen.

27 September 2017: House introduces resolution

Ro Khanna, a junior Democratic congressman from California, first introduced the resolution in the House of Representatives after a summer of mounting civilian casualties from Saudi air strikes in Yemen.

"The average person in my district, or Ohio or Pennsylvania, does not want us risking American troops or spending American tax dollars on fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and they certainly don't want us complicit in human rights violations," Khanna told MEE in an interview at the time.

Still, with only three Republican sponsors in a House of Representatives in which Republicans held a 59-seat majority, the resolution's prospects of success were bleak.

Air strikes in Sanaa last month (Reuters)
Aftermath of an air strike in Sanaa, January 2017 (Reuters)

Days before Khanna's bill was introduced, American humanitarian assistance programme USAID reported that a cholera outbreak in Yemen was nearing 700,000 cases.

That same month, Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of war crimes related to the killing of 39 civilians, including 26 children, over the previous two months.

14 November 2017: Symbolic declaration passes

Amid pushback from the leadership of both US parties, Khanna's bill was watered down and stripped of its impact.

But in a largely symbolic, 366-to-30 vote, the House denounced civilian casualties and asserted that Congress did not declare war in Yemen.

The vote nonetheless had no effect on US policy towards the conflict, or on Washington's military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

Air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, 22 January, 2017 (AFP)
Aftermath of air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, 22 January 2017 (AFP)

"Enough is enough. The US must stop providing military support to Saudi Arabia," Khanna wrote on Twitter at the time.

Less than a week before the vote, the UN warned of famine in Yemen if the Saudi-led coalition did not allow humanitarian aid into the country.

"It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims," Mark Lowcock, a UN official, said on 8 November.

28 February 2018: Sanders advances Senate bill

As Khanna's bill stalled in the House, US Senator Bernie Sanders teamed up with his colleagues Mike Lee, a Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat, to bring a similar measure forward in the Senate.

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"This horror is caused in part by our decision to facilitate a bombing campaign that is murdering children, and to endorse a Saudi strategy inside Yemen that is deliberately using disease and starvation and the withdrawal of humanitarian support as a tactic," Murphy said at the time.

Around that same time, clashes broke out in Yemen's southern city of Aden between various forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition.

The violence killed 39 people, highlighting the complexity of the conflict and Riyadh's inability to bring stability to the country, even in areas controlled by its allies.

26 September 2018: Khanna reintroduces his bill

Almost a year after he first presented his resolution to end US support to the coalition, Khanna reintroduced the measure.

This time, only months from the 2018 midterm elections, the legislation won the support of top Democratic lawmakers and garnered more than 50 co-sponsors.

A month before the motion was reintroduced, the Saudi-led coalition targeted a school bus in northern Yemen with a US-made bomb, killing 40 children.

Yemenis dig graves for children, who where killed when their bus was bombed by Saudi-led coalition (AFP)
Yemenis dig graves for children killed when their bus was bombed by Saudi-led coalition, 10 August 2018 (AFP)

The incident triggered outrage across the US political spectrum.

"One year later, the bloodshed continues with widespread destruction and disease contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. US-fuelled planes continue to drop US-made bombs on innocent victims," Khanna said.

2 October 2018: Saudis kill Jamal Khashoggi

A group of Saudi government agents murdered Khashoggi at the country's consulate in Istanbul.

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The Washington Post columnist resided in the US at the time of his killing, and he had close ties to American politicians and other influential people in the country.

The gruesome nature of the murder, coupled with Khashoggi's high profile in Washington, spurred a wave of anger against Saudi Arabia and its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

In the last column published before he was killed, Khashoggi called for ending the "cruel" Yemen war.

His death would bring greater scrutiny to US-Saudi relations and build a wider coalition of support for efforts in Congress to end US involvement in Yemen.

14 November 2018: House Republicans block resolution

Republicans lost control of the House in the midterm elections.

But before power shifted to the Democrats, who took control of the chamber in early 2019, Republicans blocked Khanna's resolution by attaching to it a rule that would deprive it of speedy passage.

Children in Sanaa protest (AFP)
Children in Sanaa protest against deadly Saudi air strikes on Yemeni civilians, 12 August 2018 (AFP)

"We should be voting on this," Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat, said at the time. "People are dying every minute in Yemen. Our silence and our inaction mean that we are complicit."

That November was one of the deadliest months of the war, with more than 3,000 fatalities, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).

A week after the House resolution was blocked, Save the Children reported that up to 85,000 children under five may have died as a result of starvation or disease in Yemen since the beginning of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in April 2015.

"For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death and it's entirely preventable," Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children's country director in Yemen, told AFP news agency at the time.

"Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop."

13 December 2018: Senate passes historic resolution

For the first time in US history, the Senate invoked the War Powers Act by passing the Sanders-sponsored bill to halt US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The 56-41 vote in the Republican-controlled chamber was seen as a rebuke of Trump, who had continued to defend Riyadh and bin Salman after Khashoggi's death.

"We have brought Republicans and Democrats together in a very historical moment," Sanders said at the time.

Earlier that same month, peace talks between representatives of the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition were held in Sweden. The negotiations came on the heels of heightened fighting in the port city of Hodeidah, which had become a lifeline for millions of Yemenis in critical need of humanitarian supplies.

A few weeks earlier, UNICEF said the fighting in Hodeidah was putting dozens of hospitalised children at "imminent risk" of death, as access to the city's only hospital had been impeded by clashes.

3 January 2019: New Congress sworn in

The new make-up of Congress came into effect, with Democrats taking control of the House and Republicans retaining a majority in the Senate.

US Capitol building (MEE)
US Capitol Building in Washington (MEE)

That meant that all the pending bills related to Yemen had to be brought up for a vote again.

That same month, MEE reported that the crippling conflict had forced many Yemeni children to drop out of school and look for work in order to support their families.

"I want to study regularly, but it is difficult because I need to sell my items before noon," said 12-year-old Mohammed Ghlaib, who had been forced to sell sweets on the streets of Taiz to help his family afford basic necessities.

"If I study regularly, my family will not get enough money to buy food."

13 February 2019: House passes resolution

In one of their first legislative accomplishments, House Democrats passed Khanna's resolution by a comfortable margin, 248 to 177.

However, lawmakers attached unrelated passages to the bill - condemning anti-Semitism and efforts to boycott Israel - which meant it could not be granted a swift vote in the Senate.

Instead, it would first have to go through several committees before it could be voted upon.

That same month, USAID reported that nearly 80 percent of Yemen's population required humanitarian assistance.

13 March 2019: Senate passes new resolution

In order to get around the procedural delays created by the House - after it attached unrelated amendments to the anti-war bill - the Senate introduced and passed a new resolution on Yemen.

After a 54-46 vote, the resolution, which was similar to what the Senate approved in December 2018, was then sent back to the House to pass.

Taiz City's Republican Hospital (MEE)
Cholera patients at Taiz City's Republican Hospital (MEE)

That month, an MEE correspondent in Sanaa reported that more than 100 women and girls had been abducted in and around the Yemeni capital, as part of a worrying trend of kidnappings and growing insecurity.

Unknown abductors snatched Mohammed al-Asri's 12-year-old daughter, Ghadir, while she was lagging behind her friends on her way to school, the father told MEE at the time. "We only found her bag and jacket on the route between the school and the house," he said.

"We are still looking for her and we informed the police station, and we hope to find her. I feel lost after my daughter's abduction."

4 April 2019: House approves legislation

Finally, more than 18 months after the resolution was first introduced, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives comfortably passed the Senate bill.

That sent the legislation to the president's desk. But Trump had already promised to veto the attempt to end US aid to Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and observers in Washington were prepared for a showdown.

Still, by the time Congress passed the bill, Yemen was utterly devastated.

Less than two weeks before the resolution was passed, a Saudi-led air strike hit a hospital, killing at least four children and three adults.

16 April 2019: Trump vetoes legislation

As promised, Trump blocked the bill, calling it an "unnecessary, dangerous attempt" to weaken his authority.

The veto left Congress with a difficult task to turn the legislation into law - they would need a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override the president's veto.

"He failed to uphold the principles of the Constitution that give Congress power over matters of war and peace," Khanna said.

Two days after Trump's veto, Oxfam warned that Yemen's deadly cholera outbreak was expected to worsen this year.

The charity said it may even surpass the total cases recorded in 2017, when the World Health Organisation described the crisis as the worst in human history.

2 May 2019: Senate upholds Trump's veto

Finally, the Senate fell 14 votes shy of the 67 it needed to overturn Trump's veto.

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Despite pleas from the bill's supporters, 45 Republicans delivered a victory for Trump.

And with that, the years-long effort to end Washington's role in the war in Yemen was over.

"So long as the United States participates in the military campaign with the Saudis while not offering any meaningful pressure to get to a political settlement, we are complicit in those deaths," Senator Murphy said before the vote.

The failure came only weeks after a UN report warned that the death toll from the conflict in Yemen would surpass 230,000 by the end of the year.

"It's worse than people expected," Jonathan Moyer, the report's lead author, told MEE.

"It's one of the highest-impact internal conflicts since the end of the Cold War. On par with Iraq, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo - conflicts with an impact on development that lasts for a generation."

After failing to override the presidential veto, Democrats in Congress are now looking for new ways to tie the Trump administration’s hands by defunding the Yemen war.

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