Intel: Why the US opposes UN calls for a Yemen cease-fire

al-monitor Smoke rises from a warehouse of the World Food Program as fire engulfs it in Hodeidah, Yemen, March 31, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad.

Nov 27, 2018

CNN reported today that the United States is pulling its support for a Yemen cease-fire resolution at the United Nations after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed frustration over language calling for increased humanitarian aid and accountability almost four years after the Saudi-led intervention.

Why it matters: The report indicates that the Donald Trump administration is contradicting its stated policy goal in Yemen, which was to get the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis to the negotiating table.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has signaled for weeks that the United States is looking for a deal to end the conflict. But CNN reports that the United States is now worried that the Saudis or the Houthis — or both — won’t show up to peace talks if the resolution passes.

Capitol countdown: Even after the Pentagon stopped refueling Saudi aircraft in early November, the Trump administration faces mounting frustration on Capitol Hill, with the Senate set to vote on a bipartisan war powers resolution this week that would pull US support to the Yemen conflict. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hope to get the last word in beforehand, scheduling a last-minute briefing for senators on the morning of Nov. 28.

“I think the Trump administration’s decision to send Mattis and Pompeo to brief all senators and [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell’s strong resistance to scheduling a war powers vote until after that briefing show that Saudi Arabia’s defenders are taking seriously the prospect of losing this vote,” said a former US official on condition of anonymity.

What legislators want: A House aide told Al-Monitor that members of Congress were frustrated by Mattis’ briefing earlier this year, which failed to reveal that US Special Forces were helping Saudi troops in raids against Houthi missile sites on the border with Yemen. Lawmakers only learned about the operation from The New York Times. The aide said senators will be looking to get the full picture of US support to the Saudi-led coalition, including intelligence support and Special Forces raids.

Target MBS: The Senate remains frustrated over Saudi Arabia’s role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and has other ways to force the administration’s hand. The Treasury Department placed sanctions on Saudi officials for the killing but avoided chastising Prince Mohammed himself. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told CNN on Monday he may attach legislation to a must-pass spending bill set to move ahead in early December targeting the crown prince.

What’s next: Peace talks between the Iran-backed Houthis and the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi are expected to resume next week in Sweden. The World Food Program said today that shipping to the port of Hodeidah is down 50% over the past two weeks. The port is the entry point for 70% of Yemen’s humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, in the US Senate, Corker also ordered a fresh sanctions investigation into Prince Mohammed’s alleged role into the killing. The Trump administration has 120 days to decide whether to directly sanction the king-in-waiting. The Senate could also move on a bipartisan bill that formally suspends weapons sales and slaps sanctions on parties blocking humanitarian access in Yemen.

Learn more: Read Jack Detsch’s latest on the US administration’s inflated tally of Saudi Arabia’s weapons purchases, which was spearheaded by White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to an ABC News report. Kushner’s influence on the relationship has created an imbalance in US-Saudi relations, experts say.

“There’s a structural problem to the relationship where you have a crown prince who is kind of the principal point man — he’s thoroughly consolidated all levers of power — and on the other side you’ve got Jared Kushner,” a former US official in the Gulf told Al-Monitor this month on condition of anonymity. “That’s not a healthy way to run a relationship of this size and importance. The pile of dry kindling in this crisis is Yemen, and Khashoggi is the match.”

- Jack Detsch