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The US Senate is ignoring Trump, sticking with its plan to end role in the Yemen war

Senate resolution to end US military aid to Saudi-led forces in Yemen will move ahead in defiance of pressure from Trump administration
Saudi-led war in Yemen has caused a humanitarian crisis and widespread malnutrition (AFP/File photo)

In an exceptional rebuke to President Donald Trump's unwavering embrace of Saudi Arabia, the US Senate voted in favour of advancing a resolution that seeks to end US involvement in the war in Yemen.

US senators voted 63-37 on Wednesday afternoon to move forward with a resolution to end Washington's support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

While procedural, the successful vote discharges the resolution from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and clears the way for a Senate-wide debate on its contents, which is expected to take place next week.

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"Today’s Senate vote is a signal to the administration that they must reorient American policy toward Saudi Arabia or Congress will do it for them," said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy after the vote.

Murphy co-sponsored the bipartisan resolution alongside independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Mike Lee.

Sanders praised the outcome of Wednesday's vote in a video message on Twitter.

"What we did today was of enormous significance; this is a really important step forward," he said.

However, he cautioned that the content of the resolution has to be debated on the Senate floor before it can be voted on.

The result signals a deepening rift between US politicians and Trump, who has pledged his administration's continued support for Riyadh despite the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Fourteen senators from the president's own Republican party voted in favour of the resolution, including Lindsey Graham, who has repeatedly voiced his outrage over Khashoggi's murder. Every Democratic Party senator voted to advance the resolution.

The vote passed only a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged politicians to maintain Washington's support for the Saudi-led coalition, saying the conflict in Yemen would only worsen without it.

"The suffering in Yemen grieves me, but if the United States of America was not involved in Yemen, it would be a hell of a lot worse," Pompeo said in a prepared statement ahead of the vote, as reported by AFP news agency.

"Abandoning Yemen would do immense damage to US national security interests and those of our Middle Eastern allies and partners," he said, describing the Senate vote as "poorly timed".

Pressure over Khashoggi case

The Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, launched its military offensive in Yemen in 2015 to root out Houthi rebels who had taken over the country’s capital, Sanaa, and ousted Yemen's Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The ongoing war has led to a dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where millions of residents are at risk of famine.

US military support for the Saudi-led coalition includes intelligence sharing and training pilots who carry out air strikes. The Pentagon had also been conducting air-to-air refuelling for coalition aircraft, but this month said it would stop.

While previous attempts to end Washington's support for Saudi Arabia's role in the war have failed, supporters of the resolution have high hopes that heightened pressure on Riyadh in recent weeks over the murder of Khashoggi will get it passed this time.

If eventually passed, the Senate resolution demands within 30 days an end to all US involvement in the Yemen war that has not been authorised by Congress.

Wednesday's vote came amid ongoing pressure on the Trump administration to re-evaluate Washington's relationship with Riyadh over the murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed inside his country's consulate in Istanbul in early October.

While Trump has vowed to stand by Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic and columnist for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, US politicians have called on the president to hold Saudi leaders responsible.

The Khashoggi case has also highlighted a growing rift between the president and the US intelligence community after the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the journalist's murder.

However, the president has sought to cast doubt on the CIA's findings, saying the evidence isn't conclusive. Saudi officials have repeatedly said the crown prince, known as MBS, and Saudi King Salman had no knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi and the crime's subsequent cover-up.

On Wednesday morning, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis briefed US senators on the war in Yemen, as well as the Khashoggi case.

"There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters, echoing the US president.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told reporters that CIA Director Gina Haspel did not attend the Senate briefing "at the direction of the White House," citing Pompeo and Mattis.

The Guardian newspaper first reported on Tuesday that the White House had blocked Haspel from speaking to US lawmakers on the Khashoggi case.

A CIA spokesman dismissed claims that Haspel was prevented from attending. "The notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false," agency spokesman Timothy Barrett said in a statement.

However, Haspel was not present at the briefing despite being sent to Istanbul last month to be briefed on the Turkish investigation into Khashoggi's murder and amid reports that she has listened to an audio recording of his killing.

After the meeting with Pompeo and Mattis, Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he "heard nothing convincing as to why we should not proceed" with the Senate resolution.

“It's time to send Saudi Arabia a message,” he said, as reported by CNN.

Menendez also told reporters that it was “outrageous” and a “cover-up” that Haspel wasn’t included in the briefing. “[It] tells me volumes about what's really going on here," he said, as reported by CBS News.

'Congressional action is imperative'

The same Senate resolution on Yemen failed to pass in a 55-44 vote in March.

The motion seeks for the first time to take advantage of a provision in the 1973 War Powers Act, which allows any senator to introduce a resolution on whether to withdraw US armed forces from a conflict not authorised by Congress.

This Senate vote should mark the beginning of the end of American complicity in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis

- Kate Gould, Friends Committee on National Legislation

On Tuesday, Vox reported that more than 50 experts, including former US ambassadors to Yemen Barbara Bodine and Stephen Seche, had also urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to support the resolution.

A decision to end US midair refuelling for Saudi coalition warplanes, announced earlier this month, “has not proved sufficient in compelling the coalition to end hostilities,” they said in a letter.

“The president's November 20th declaration absolving Saudi leadership of its conduct in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi indicates that the Trump administration will not use its leverage to rapidly bring the conflict to an end…. Immediate Congressional action is therefore imperative.”

The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker advocacy group in the US, praised Wednesday's vote.

"This Senate vote should mark the beginning of the end of American complicity in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis," said Kate Gould, FCNL’s legislative director for Middle East policy.

"The Senate sent a strong bipartisan message that there must be consequences for the slaughter of civilians - whether it’s the killing of a Saudi journalist or the indiscriminate bombing of men, women and children in Yemen."

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