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Congress presses Biden administration for answers on Yemen war

Pressure is building on Capitol Hill as lawmakers await clarity about US support for Saudi Arabia in an upcoming briefing.
fighters near Marib

Nearly three months after President Joe Biden announced a halt to US support for offensive Saudi-led operations in Yemen’s civil war, Democrats in Congress are once again pressing for answers about the precise nature of continued US assistance to the Gulf coalition.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week, three lawmakers inquired whether the US government or US-licensed companies have provided intelligence, advice or maintenance support for Riyadh’s military operations against Yemen’s Houthi rebels since Biden’s order.

The letter, obtained by Al-Monitor, is the latest sign that patience has been running thin among Democrats on Capitol Hill over what some see as the Biden administration’s slow response to their calls for transparency on the new policy.

As a candidate, Biden promised to end US involvement in Yemen’s civil war, which the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The president announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen in February and froze two pending sales of several thousand guided bombs to Riyadh.

The move was applauded by rights activists and members of Congress. But a recent CNN report about Saudi Arabia’s continued blockade of Yemen, and what lawmakers say is a lack of answers on the status of current US support for the Saudi-led coalition, have aroused renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

The Biden administration has yet to respond to a series of questions addressed to the president in a letter signed by 41 representatives in February, lawmakers say.

In a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Yemen envoy Timothy Lenderking appeared to duck similar questions, saying he was “not totally in that information loop” when asked whether the United States still supports any Saudi-led operations.

“Recent statements have caused us to question whether the policy has been comprehensively implemented and indeed whether the administration has completely ended US support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” read the latest letter, which was signed by Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Ro Khanna of California and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.

US military officials say US Central Command continues to provide defensive support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, including early-warning intelligence on ballistic missile launches out of Yemen.

The United States is not assisting the defense of the Yemeni government-held city of Marib or other ongoing ground battles, the head of all American forces in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, said in response to a recent question from Al-Monitor.

“We’re not doing anything with them that could be characterized as offensive in nature,” McKenzie explained. The Trump administration ended midair refueling for Saudi aircraft in 2018.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon acknowledged in an email to reporters on Saturday that private US contractors continue to provide maintenance for the Royal Saudi Air Force, a service essential for Riyadh’s bombing of Houthi positions.

A 2019 war powers resolution that passed the House with broad bipartisan support would have barred such maintenance and spare parts support had the bill been included in the 2020 defense spending legislation.

Prior to their recent appointments, several members of Biden’s administration publicly advocated passing the resolution. Among them are now national security adviser Jake Sullivan, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Iran envoy Robert Malley, USAID chief Samantha Power and Kelly Magsamen, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Rights groups and some progressive members of Congress continue to object to the maintenance support, noting that years of Saudi bombardment have failed to stop the Houthis’ advance and have worsened Yemen’s humanitarian situation.

Administration officials are expected to brief members of Congress on the issue Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter.

But Democratic aides say patience is running out. Khanna, who co-led the 2019 war powers resolution along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., described the mood among lawmakers on the issue as “moral outrage” during an interview with The Nation earlier this month.

Activists say the Saudi air force’s reliance on US maintenance gives the Biden administration significant leverage that could be used to push Riyadh to offer cease-fire terms that would be more acceptable to the Houthis.

They also argue it could also be used to pressure an end to the Saudi blockade, which both United Nations and US officials have said is central to Yemen’s disastrous food and fuel shortages.

It is not clear whether the current US officials have raised the issue as a point of leverage with Riyadh, but the Biden administration "does not currently have plans to reduce or suspend maintenance or logistical support for the Royal Saudi Air Force," a senior US official told Al-Monitor.

Concerns that Saudi officials may see the United States as an unreliable partner and potentially turn to Russia for future defense agreements likely play a role in the Biden administration's calculus, according to Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan (ret.), former commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

"For many reasons, it is very much in the US interest to keep a positive relationship with the Saudis” as the Biden administration looks to focus on a rising China, said Donegan, who oversaw US operations in Yemen as CENTCOM’s operations chief.

"If the Saudis lift the blockade, their well-founded fear would be that bigger and more accurate weapons will come into Yemen," he said, adding that the Houthis build and launch the ballistic missiles and drones with direct Iranian support.

Rights advocates argue that the blockade has not stopped the flow of arms to the Houthis, a challenge Gen. McKenzie alluded to publicly in February. As Yemenis continue to suffer, there is so far little indication as to which side may be willing to stop shooting first.

Having pushed Riyadh to allow limited fuel shipments into the port of Hodeida, Biden administration officials continue to explore potential diplomatic openings with moderate Houthi representatives in what may evolve into an attempt to wean the rebels off Iranian support, Lenderking suggested before the Senate's foreign relations panel last week.

Yet hardliners among the rebels may not have any interest in negotiating, the envoy acknowledged. “In that case, our cause will be very difficult, and I think that’s where we bring international pressure to bear,” he said.

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