Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen grows worse by the day. The conflict has been marked by violations of the laws of war on all sides, including targeting of civilians, torture, the use of child soldiers, and other abuses.
The Trump administration recently called for a ceasefire and announced its decision to stop refueling Saudi aircraft involved in the conflict, but if President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team really want to end the war, they need to use all the tools at their disposal – military, diplomatic and economic.
Trump seems unlikely to do so. In fact, it’s more likely that the US will remain complicit in the civilian deaths that have resulted from Saudi attacks. It is therefore imperative that Congress hold Trump’s feet to the fire by passing legislation that invokes the War Powers Resolution, which bars the United States from playing a substantial role in any conflict that has not been authorized by Congress. Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to do just that, but with mixed results.
In the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mike Lee of Utah and Chris Murphy of Connecticut have introduced a bill that would end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen unless US involvement is authorized by Congress. That measure should come up for a vote in the next few weeks.
In the House, a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna of California and dozens of his colleagues was blocked from coming to a vote by Republican leadership, backed up by all but 15 Republican members of the House.
But with the Democrats taking control of the House in January, the prospects of passing a War Powers Resolution on Yemen will increase dramatically. Incoming House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Washington) was an original co-sponsor of Khanna’s bill, and in recent days House Democratic leaders from Nancy Pelosi on down have spoken forcefully about the need to end the US role in the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen.
This action can’t come soon enough. There have been more than 17,640 civilian casualties thus far, many the result of air strikes carried out the by US-backed, Saudi-led coalition, according to the United Nations. Bombing raids have hit hospitals, marketplaces, civilian infrastructure, weddings, a funeral and even a school bus carrying dozens of children. The Saudi government has claimed that the strike on the school bus was an error. But the sheer number of bombings that have impacted civilians raises serious questions about whether the US should continue to provide the equipment used to carry out the Saudi air campaign.
Untold numbers of additional deaths in Yemen have been caused by a naval blockade and fighting on the ground, which have hindered the distribution of food, clean water and essential medicines. More than 8 million Yemenis are at risk of famine, and the bombing of civilian infrastructure, including water treatment plants, has sparked a cholera outbreak that has affected more than 1 million people
To make matters worse, an ongoing assault on the port of Hodeida, spearheaded by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, is shutting the main route through which commercial goods and humanitarian aid get into Yemen. UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock has said that Yemen could now face the worst famine in living memory. Up to half the nation’s 28 million people could be at risk of needing food assistance to survive. But Trump has not pressed the coalition forcefully enough to end the assault on the port, which had intensified in recent weeks before a brief lull late last week.
In the face of this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, the Trump administration’s steps to ameliorate the crisis are woefully inadequate. The Pentagon’s announcement on the end of refueling for Saudi aircrafts involved in the war is a case in point. It describes the decision as taken jointly with Saudi officials and suggests that the kingdom is largely able to do its own refueling at this point.
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials continue to perpetrate the fiction that the Saudi regime is taking good faith steps to limit civilian casualties in its air campaign. That claim is refuted by the fact that almost 60% of its October air strikes hit civilian targets, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitoring group. Framed in these terms, the end of refueling of Saudi aircraft reads less like an effort to stop deadly air strikes and more like a maneuver to sidestep pressure from the public, the press and Capitol Hill to end US complicity in the civilian casualties.
If it wants to make an earnest effort to protect innocent lives, the Trump administration should end all support for the Saudi/UAE war effort. That includes targeting assistance, arms sales and the provision of spare parts and maintenance for the existing Saudi and UAE arsenals. Given that the bulk of the Saudi arsenal – including more than half its combat-capable aircraft, tens of thousands of bombs, and 2,000 armored vehicles – is of US-origin, an end to US support could quickly degrade the fighting capability of the Saudi armed forces.
Unless Congress acts, it is unlikely the Trump administration finally will say enough is enough and apply maximum pressure on the Saudis and the UAE to end the war. The sooner that happens, the better it will be, for the people of Yemen and the security of the United States and the region.