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Senators defy White House, move to end US role in Yemen

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis takes questions from reporters on Aug. 28, 2018 at the Pentagon.

COREY DICKSTEIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 28, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday voted to move a legislative measure forward that could end the U.S. military role in Yemen and its support of the Saudi-led coalition there, effectively rebuking pleas from White House officials to dismiss the plan.

In a procedural vote late Wednesday, senators voted 63 to 37 for an upper chamber debate on the resolution to reverse U.S. support of the Saudis in war-torn Yemen.

The vote increases pressure on the White House to re-evaluate its current direction in Yemen, as well as push for a peaceful resolution in the country’s ongoing civil war.

The move comes on the heels of a closed-door meeting in the Capitol earlier Wednesday between senators and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Mattis and Pompeo urged the senators to thwart the resolution.

“That was the mission today to try to stop this movement among senators to be very public about their disapproval of what’s going on with the U.S. support of the Saudi coalition,” said Kurt Couchman, vice president of Public Policy for Defense Priorities, a right-leaning Washington think tank.

The resolution now heads to a full floor Senate debate in the coming days.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced Joint Resolution 54 in March, forcing a vote on the Yemen matter for the first time. The resolution was effectively rejected in a 55 to 44 vote, largely along party lines with Republicans voting against the measure.

But since that time, support for Saudi Arabia has diminished, especially in light of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder at the country’s consulate in Turkey.

“We sent an important message today – that Congress will stand up to Saudi leadership when [President Donald Trump’s] administration won’t, and that Saudi Arabia will face consequences for the murder of Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi as well as for the disastrous war in Yemen,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “We must cease support for this war – never authorized by Congress – that has taken thousands of lives and finally demand accountability for the Saudi regime’s continued human rights abuses.”

U.S. forces have provided support for Saudi Arabia and the Yemen government in their fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which some lawmakers contend the U.S. military has not been given proper authority to do. The U.S. forces have assisted in coordinating, refueling and providing target guidance and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Earlier Wednesday, Mattis and Pompeo told senators in a private meeting the United States was at a critical juncture in the Yemen confrontation and couldn’t afford to withdraw at this time.

“Pulling back our limited U.S. military support, our weapons sales to our partners, and our protection of the Saudi and Emirati populations would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations,” Mattis said, according to prepared remarks. “It took us too long to get here, but at this key juncture, a change in our approach would work against” United Nations efforts.

Democrats have said after winning the House in the midterm elections earlier this month that they would push for greater oversight of U.S. operations, and look at efforts to withdraw the U.S. presence in Yemen, with some Republicans echoing the concerns.

Mattis and Pompeo were at the Capitol on Wednesday as part of a White House effort to push against such a resolution. Peace talks involving all sides of the Yemen civil war are slated to take place in Sweden as early as next week.

“The view of the [President Donald Trump] administration, Secretary Mattis and myself that passing a resolution at this point undermines that,” Pompeo said in comments to reporters following the meeting. “It would encourage the Houthis. It would encourage the Iranians. It would undermine the fragile agreement for everyone to go to Sweden and have this discussion.”

The 11 a.m. meeting Wednesday wasn’t without controversy, with some lawmakers and pundits questioning why CIA director Gina Haspel wasn’t included in the briefing with senators. As senators exited Wednesday’s meeting, some of them said Haspel wasn’t at the meeting at the direction of the White House, according to news reports.

Mattis, in his remarks, said if the United States was to pull its support, it would disrupt ongoing efforts by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and breathe new life into the Houthis' combat operations, just as they are reluctantly engaging with a U.N. interlocutor.

In his prepared remarks, Pompeo said abandoning Yemen would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests and the interests of its Middle East allies and partners. He also suggested Griffiths’ efforts are gaining momentum.

Mattis and Pompeo called for a ceasefire on Oct. 30, with the goal of causing all sides to take a step back from the fighting, Pompeo said in his remarks.

Questions about U.S. support of Saudi Arabia have grown in the wake of the death of Khashoggi after the Virginia resident visited the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Subsequent reports of recordings and other intelligence tied to the meeting have detailed Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the hands of several Saudi officials.

“Our security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President Trump described as the ‘unacceptable and horrible crime’ of Jamal Khashoggi's murder, a crime which ‘our country does not condone,’” Mattis said in quoting Trump. “We must maintain our twin requirements of holding those responsible for the murder to account, while recognizing the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner.”

However, Trump’s comments about Khashoggi’s death have been met with its share of controversy, since the president hasn’t fully agreed with U.S. intelligence reports suggesting the Saudi crown prince directed the killing.

Pompeo and Mattis on Wednesday appeared aligned with Trump’s take on the intelligence.

Regardless, Mattis said the United States should not be deterred from its effort to aid others who are innocent.

“We cannot be deflected from using all our influence to end this war for the good of innocent people in trouble, and ultimately the safety of our own people, and this includes our military engagement,” he said.

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales

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