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US Senate passes new Yemen motion, but lawmakers little closer to ending aid to Saudis

Senate motion is latest piece of legislation seeking to end Washington's support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen
War in Yemen has left millions on brink of famine and caused widespread disease (AFP/File photo)

The US Senate has passed a resolution to end Washington’s involvement in the war in Yemen, but American lawmakers remain little closer to actually forcing President Donald Trump's administration to withdraw its assistance to Saudi-led forces there.

The senators passed the resolution in a 54-46 vote on Wednesday, invoking the War Powers Act that restricts American military intervention without prior authorisation from Congress.

The vote comes amid heightened pressure on the Trump administration to end its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"The fact is that the United States with little media attention has been Saudi Arabia’s partner in this horrific war," Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan resolution, said on the Senate floor before the vote.

"We have been providing the bombs that the Saudi-led coalition is using. We have been refuelling their planes before they drop those bombs and we have been assisting with intelligence. In too many cases, our weapons are being used to kill civilians."

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The US provides intelligence sharing, logistics support and other training to the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates.

It also previously helped with mid-air refuelling for coalition warplanes, but that assistance ended late last year.

Saudi-led forces launched a military assault on Yemen in 2015 to root out the country's Houthi rebels, who had taken over the capital, Sanaa, and ousted Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

"The bottom line is that the United States should not be supporting a catastrophic war led by a despotic regime with a dangerous and irresponsible foreign policy," Sanders said.

While the Senate motion is similar to a resolution that passed in the House on 14 February, it is a different piece of legislation.

That means the Senate bill will need to be passed in the House before it can be sent to Trump for ratification. Conversely, the House bill from last month will also need to be passed by the Senate before going to the president.

Here's how the system works - and what Yemen resolutions are currently on the table in Congress.

What's happened so far?

In late November, the US Senate passed a resolution to end US involvement in the Yemen war.

Largely described as a symbolic first step, the legislation was later voted down in the House, which at the time was controlled by Republicans.

Undeterred by that failure - and with new make-ups in both the House and Senate after the midterm elections - US lawmakers said at the start of the year that they planned to reintroduce the motion.

On 14 February, a resolution to end US support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was passed in the House in a 248-177 vote.

That motion, however, was amended at the urging of Republicans to include language about the need to fight global anti-Semitism and oppose boycotts of US allies, a reference to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

'The bottom line is that the United States should not be supporting a catastrophic war led by a despotic regime with a dangerous and irresponsible foreign policy'

- Senator Bernie Sanders

While Democrats agreed to the add-ons, those additions effectively stripped the legislation of its urgent status.

That allowed US lawmakers opposed to ending US involvement in the Yemen war to delay bringing it up for a vote in the Senate, which remains under Republican control.

Faced with the prospect of another long wait, Sanders and other senators who have backed efforts to end the US's role in Yemen decided to propose their own resolution instead of waiting for the House bill to come up for a vote.

That new Senate motion is what passed on Wednesday.

In other words, there are two Yemen resolutions now moving through Congress - and each has successfully passed in one chamber.

The House resolution must still pass in the Senate, while the Senate resolution must still pass in the House before either can be taken to Trump to sign into law.

The US president, however, has already vowed to veto efforts to end US involvement in the war in Yemen - and Trump's office reaffirmed his intention to veto the legislation again on Wednesday.

Two-thirds of lawmakers in the Republican-held Senate would have to vote in favour of either piece of legislation to override a Trump veto.

Situation in Yemen still dire

Meanwhile, the situation in Yemen has remained dire, with millions living on the brink of famine as the conflict continues.

This week, air strikes in a province in the country's north killed at least 22 civilians, including women and children. Houthi forces blamed Saudi Arabia for the air strikes, but the Saudi-led coalition has denied it was responsible.

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Rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of people - both civilians and combatants - have been killed in Yemen since the war began.

Earlier this month, former US diplomats and experts told Middle East Eye that Saudi Arabia would be forced to end the war if Washington halted its assistance to the coalition.

"If we suspend providing spare parts for their F-15s, their air force would be grounded in two weeks," said Robert Jordan, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s.

"If that occurs, they will find it more appealing to go to the peace table and negotiate than they currently do."

Trump reasserts plans for veto

That was echoed by Sanders on Wednesday. "Some have suggested that Congress moving to withdraw support for this war would undermine United Nations efforts to reach a peace agreement - but the opposite is true," he said in the Senate.

"It is the promise of unconditional US support for the Saudis that undermines those efforts."

'This will be seen as a message to the Saudis that they need to clean up their act'

- Senator Chris Murphy

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, an outspoken opponent of the war, said the resolution is not only about Yemen; it indirectly addresses other Saudi human rights violations, including the assassination of Khashoggi, he told lawmakers on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

A Saudi government critic and Washington Post columnist, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. The US State Department blamed the killing on Saudi "government agents" this week, while the CIA and US Senate previously concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder.

"This will be seen as a message to the Saudis that they need to clean up their act," Murphy said.

He also dismissed the White House's assertion that ending US assistance to the coalition may cause more civilian deaths. "The Trump administration says, 'If we're not part of the coalition, it just means that we cannot stop civilians from being killed,'" he said.

"Well, forgive me, but it doesn't seem like we've been doing to good of a job thus far; 85,000 children under the age of five have died of starvation and disease, and tens of thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire."

Still, the Trump administration appears steadfast in its plans to keep backing Saudi-led forces in Yemen. On Wednesday, the president's office put out a statement urging senators to vote against what it described as a "flawed" resolution.

"Because the President has directed United States forces to support the Saudi-led coalition under his constitutional powers, the joint resolution would raise serious constitutional concerns to the extent that it seeks to override the President's determination as Commander in Chief," the statement reads.

The administration said passing such a motion would harm Washington's relations with its allies, as well as the US's ability to "prevent the spread of violent extremist organisations".

If the joint resolution to end US involvement in the war in Yemen eventually lands on Trump's desk, his office said on Wednesday that the president's "senior advisers would recommend he veto" it.