Trump signals deeper US involvement in Yemen
Lawmakers who pushed former President Barack Obama to curb support for a Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war are gearing up to battle President Trump on expanding U.S. involvement.
Several reports this week said Trump is considering providing assistance for an offensive on a key port held by rebels in Yemen and has already increased intelligence sharing and logistics support.
In addition, Trump is considering allowing an arms sale to the Saudis that Obama blocked and has approved an arms sale to Bahrain, which is part of the Saudi coalition.
Providing a window into the advice Trump is getting, the general under whose responsibility Yemen falls said this week there are “vital U.S. interests at stake” in the country.
But the Democrats and a few Republicans who battled Obama over U.S. involvement in Yemen are vowing to do the same under Trump.
“It sounds like we’ve learned absolutely no lessons from the last 15 years in the Middle East,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “We’re engaged in a rapid military escalation with no political strategy. This is a recipe for disaster, and I’m prepared to use whatever tools I have at my disposal to try to force Congress to weigh in on this question.”
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since March 2015, when Houthi rebels took over the capital of Sanaa and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden. Saudi Arabia, concerned about Iran’s support of the Houthis in a neighboring country, formed a coalition and intervened in support of Hadi.
As of March 24, 4,773 civilians have been killed and another 8,272 injured since the start of the conflict, according to the United Nations. Additionally, more than 3 million people have been displaced, and the country is on the brink of famine.
The United States has supported the campaign by selling the Saudis billions of dollars of weapons, providing intelligence and helping with logistics such as air refueling.
But as the civilian death toll mounted and pressure from human rights groups and some lawmakers intensified, Obama curbed support in the waning days of his presidency. He halted a planned $300 million sale of precision-guided munitions and curtailed some intelligence sharing.
Still, Obama kept other planned arm sales to the Saudis in the pipeline, maintained logistical support for the coalition and tweaked training to improve the Saudi air force’s targeting.
Trump appears poised to reverse Obama’s rollback of support for the campaign.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reportedly signed off on the precision-guided munitions sale, with White House approval needed before it’s official. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also reportedly asked the White House to approve U.S. surveillance, intelligence, refueling and operational planning for a United Arab Emirates-led offensive on Hodeida, a Red Sea port held by the Houthis.
The administration also notified the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that it approved a $5 billion sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets and related equipment to Bahrain, which is part of the Saudi coalition. Obama halted the sale over concerns about Bahrain’s human rights record.
Advocates of U.S. involvement in the war cite Iran’s support for the Houthis, saying it’s critical the United States contains Tehran’s influence.
When the Trump administration put Iran “on notice” earlier this year, it highlighted Tehran’s support for the Houthis.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee this week he’s concerned about Iran making a “chokepoint” in the Bab al-Mandab Strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, similar to Iran’s behavior in the Strait of Hormuz.
“We have seen the migration of capabilities the we’ve previously seen in the Strait of Hormuz, a layered defense of coastal defense missiles and radar systems, mines, explosive boats that have been migrated from the Strait of Hormuz to this particular area right here, threatening commerce and ships and our security operations in that particular area,” he said.
He said al Qaeda’s Yemen branch remains the United States’ main focus in the country, but that the civil war affects that mission.
“While that rages, it does have some impact on our other, on our principal interests in this area, so I think we do have to pay some attention to that,” Votel said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said U.S. support of the Saudi coalition is vital to countering Iran.
“We cannot allow Iran to dominate that country,” he told reporters this week. “It’s a direct threat to the United States national security and would help the rise of al Qaeda and other extremist elements.”
Asked about Yemen, the Bahrain arms sale and countering Iranian influence, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the sale is needed to give Bahrain capability “necessary for national security.”
“What the previous administration was doing on arms sales was absolutely inappropriate,” Corker told The Hill. “We should have addressed human rights, but not in that manner. It was very counterproductive. We have encouraged the Trump administration to do what they’re doing. They’re doing it, and I’m thankful for that.”
But others say the United States should not be involved in a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially one that is devastating an already impoverished country.
“The fact of the matter is that that civil war inside Yemen is creating space for al Qaeda and ISIS to grow,” Murphy said. “Our focus should be on al Qaeda and ISIS, not on getting in the middle of proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians. And we’re creating a famine. The U.S. participation in the civil war inside Yemen is creating a famine, and that has to sit on the conscience of every U.S. senator who allows it to continue.”
Last year, Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) led a failed effort to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to the Saudis over the conduct of the Yemen civil war.
A spokesman for Paul declined to comment for this article on whether he plans to push back on Trump’s escalation of U.S. involvement.
In the House, a bipartisan quartet of congressmen is gathering signatures on a letter demanding the Trump administration provide its legal justification for participating in the Yemen civil war.
“Congress has never authorized the actions under consideration,” Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) wrote in the letter that will be sent to Trump. “Engaging our military against Yemen’s Houthis when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
As of Thursday, the letter had about 10 other signatories, according to a Pocan spokesman, who was unsure of the party breakdown.
In an interview with The Hill, Lieu called Trump’s interest in Yemen “ironic.”
“I find it ironic that Donald Trump during the campaign talked big about not being involved in foreign wars, but his actions show he’s increasing U.S. involvement in foreign wars,” Lieu said. “If this administration is going to increase its support, I believe that need to provide answers to the American public.”