In a resounding rebuke to the Pentagon, President Trump and the Saudi crown, the Senate voted 56-41 on Thursday to end United States participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where an estimated 14 million people are on the brink of starvation. It’s the first time in history that the Senate has approved a resolution under the War Powers Act to withdraw US forces from foreign hostilities.
The vote is a major victory for peace activists who have lobbied Congress to curb US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since the war escalated in 2015. However, it may not be enough to stop the US participation in the conflict, at least not right away. Republican House leaders doomed the war powers resolution in the lower chamber, and activists are pushing Democrats to move quickly when they assume the House majority in January.
“Why wait, when a child is dying every 10 minutes? Why wait another day?” asked Kate Gould, the legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in an interview.
As the Senate prepared to vote, news came of a breakthrough in the UN-brokered peace talks happening in Sweden, between the Saudi-backed government in Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Negotiators from both sides of the conflict agreed to a ceasefire around the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is crucial for delivering food and aid, and an exchange of more than 15,000 war prisoners by January 20, according to reports.
Hassan El-Tayyab, a co-director of Just Foreign Policy, who has lobbied Congress on Yemen, said the Senate vote is “absolutely” having an effect on the peace talks.
“The pressure we are putting on Congress, and as a result, the pressure Congress is putting on Saudi Arabia, is a huge piece of leverage for the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to use when he sits down with Hadi and the Houthis in Sweden,” El-Tayyab told Truthout.
The US considers Saudi Arabia a strategic ally in the region and has supported the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen with weapons, targeting and fuel, despite mounting civilian casualties and widespread famine.
The United Nations has estimated that up to 85,000 children have died from starvation and disease in Yemen, where pro-government forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have reportedly blocked rebel-held territories from receiving humanitarian aid, creating the world’s worst hunger crisis. Data is hard to come by, but international observers estimate more than 60,000 people may have been killed in the war.
The Trump administration has resisted fraying strategic ties with the Saudis, but President Trump angered members of Congress in both parties when he defended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, despite evidence linking him to the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Senate also unanimously approved a separate resolution condemning the Saudi government for Khashoggi’s death and calling for a peaceful solution to the civil war in Yemen. While the Senate votes are largely symbolic, peace groups say the breakthrough in negotiations in Sweden is proof that US lawmakers can help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen by making their stance toward Saudi Arabia clear.
“It’s clear that the Saudis are getting the message that they do not have unconditional support from Congress, and they have relied on this so much,” Gould said.
The vote is also a major victory for the peace movement, which has worked with Yemeni activists to pressure Congress to take a stand on the conflict in Yemen.
“It sets a really important precedent that Congress is willing to take back its constitutional responsibility to vote on war and peace, and it sends a really important message that Congress can be compelled by grassroots activists to end an unauthorized war,” Gould said.
El-Tayyab said the vote shows that a war powers resolution can be used to “move the conversation forward” and force Congress to debate foreign entanglements, which could have a direct impact on US foreign policy. Peace activists will be using it again, he said.
“What are we doing in Syria, what are we doing in Afghanistan … that to me is where we are going with this,” El-Tayyab said.
Peace activists will now turn their eyes to the incoming Democratic majority in the House, where outgoing Republican Speaker Paul Ryan used a procedural maneuver to dash any hopes that a war powers resolution would pass the lower chamber before the end of the 2018 session.
On Tuesday, the House narrowly approved rules for passing the Farm Bill, a must-pass piece of legislation that funds agriculture subsidies and nutrition assistance for millions of people in the US. Ryan reportedly slipped language into the rules agreement preventing lawmakers from fast-tracking the war powers resolution on Yemen for the remainder of the 2018 congressional session.
“This is legislation that is supposed to keep Americans fed … and the irony is that we have House Republicans stopping Congress from having a say on the world’s greatest hunger crisis,” Gould said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed Ryan for using the Farm Bill to prevent the Yemen vote from coming up before the end of the year, one of his last moves as speaker. Ryan’s Washington, DC, office closed on Monday and attempts to reach his staff were unsuccessful.
“As this Congress invests in food for America, we pour tax dollars into stripping Yemeni children of theirs,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said on the House floor Wednesday.
Gould said there are enough votes to pass the resolution in the House, and that is why Ryan maneuvered to prevent legislation from being fast-tracked under the War Powers Act. That’s a big change from two years ago, when many lawmakers were not even aware that the US was providing military support for the war in Yemen. House Democrats will now face grassroots pressure to prioritize Yemen in January.
“We have the votes now to end the war,” Gould said.
Correction: It was President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government in Yemen that negotiated the ceasefire agreement with Houthi rebels, not the Saudi government, as this article originally stated. El-Tayyab was misquoted in this regard.