Congress seeks to hamstring US support for assault on Yemen port

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Article Summary
The Trump administration denies supporting the UAE’s offensive on Hodeidah, but lawmakers are skeptical.

The Donald Trump administration today denied providing support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s assault on the key Yemeni port of Hodeidah amid questioning from skeptical US lawmakers.

The denials come as the Senate nears a floor vote this week that could complicate US military support for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as they fight alongside forces loyal to Yemen’s central government against the Iran-backed Houthis. UAE-backed fighters began their assault on the Houthi-held port Tuesday, sparking concerns of a humanitarian disaster.

In addition to selling the UAE and Saudi Arabia billions of dollars' worth of bombs and other weapons used in Yemen, the United States has previously provided midair refueling support that has been integral to their air campaign for the past three years. But pressed by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., during testimony before the House Middle East panel today, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield denied that the United States is assisting the Hodeidah offensive.

Satterfield declined to comment after the hearing when Al-Monitor asked him if the United States is still providing refueling support for Saudi and Emirati planes operating in Hodeidah. The Wall Street Journal, however, reported Tuesday that the Defense Department has provided its Gulf allies with a list of targets to avoid striking during the assault.

“The @WSJ reports the Trump Administration is supporting the brazen UAE military offensive on Hodeidah in Yemen,” Lieu tweeted after the hearing. “Ambassador Satterfield, in response to my question in Committee if the US was supporting the operation, just said under oath: NO. Hmmm....”

Critics of the offensive say there’s no doubt the United States is playing a role.

“As with all other coalition offensives in the civil war, the coalition would not be able to mount the Hodeidah offensive without US refueling and intelligence support,” Kate Kizer, the policy director for Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war activist groups, told Al-Monitor. “That support remains essential, and for this specific offensive the coalition needs even more support, which is why the operation was contingent upon the US giving a green-light.”

While Satterfield reiterated that “there should be no interruption of access to and through Hodeidah” or damage of critical infrastructure, he did not equivocally call for the US-backed parties to halt their offensive.

Hodeidah is Yemen’s main entry point for humanitarian aid, fuel and commercial goods. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, has warned that the assault would leave hundreds of thousands of Yemenis vulnerable and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the famine- and cholera-racked country. The UN withdrew its aid workers from Hodeidah on Tuesday even as UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths tried to forestall the attack by bringing all parties to the negotiating table.

The assault has also faced pushback from several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and the committee’s top Democrat, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., led seven other committee members in decrying the offensive in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

“We are concerned that pending military operations by the United Arab Emirates and its Yemeni partners will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis by interrupting delivery of humanitarian aid and damaging critical infrastructure,” the senators wrote. “We are also deeply concerned that these operations jeopardize prospects for a near-term political resolution to the conflict.” 

Last month, the committee advanced legislation making US midair refueling contingent on Saudi and Emirati efforts to engage in diplomacy, ensure access of humanitarian goods, reduce civilian casualties and avoid damaging critical infrastructure. That language is now in a must-pass defense authorization bill that the Senate is set to vote on this week. The equivalent House bill, which passed 351-66 last month, does not include similar language.

The Senate bill includes a national security waiver that would allow the Trump administration to continue support for the coalition without certifying that it is meeting the stringent criteria. The waiver does, however, require the secretary of state to submit an extensive report explaining why the certification can’t be made and what the administration is doing to protect civilians.

Some activists contend that the bill is too weak.

“Whatever the Senate is doing, it’s not stopping the assault on Hodeidah, which was supposedly a red line,” Robert Naiman, the policy director for the activist group Just Foreign Policy, told Al-Monitor. “Therefore it is not serious.”

Others, however, expressed optimism that the legislation signals a greater congressional willingness to force the administration and its Gulf allies’ hands on Yemen after the Senate voted 55-44 to kill a resolution that would have outright ended refueling support earlier this month.

“We expect members on both sides of the aisle … to take the administration to task for any waiver that is insufficient or does not reflect facts on the ground,” said Kizer. “The administration and the Saudis should take this language as yet another clear signal that Congress will not stand idly by as the US-supported coalition continues to kill and starve civilians in Yemen with impunity. And with the Hodeidah offensive launched, such a waiver will be all the more complicated to justify.”

Found in: Yemen war

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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