Final defense bill would limit US support to Saudi campaign in Yemen

Final defense bill would limit US support to Saudi campaign in Yemen
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The final version of this year's defense policy bill would put conditions on the U.S. refueling of Saudi Arabian and Emirati planes bombing Yemen.

The compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) unveiled by House and Senate Armed Services Committee staffers Monday retained and modified a provision from the Senate-passed version that would require the Saudi-led coalition to meet certain criteria before the U.S. military can refuel its planes.

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“Yemen remains an area of intense interest and concern for our members, and we have aggressive oversight in the conference report,” a senior staffer told reporters at a background briefing.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. The United States has been supporting the Saudi campaign with billions of dollars in arms sales, intelligence sharing and logistics like air refueling.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have grown increasingly frustrated at the Saudi campaign as the civilian death toll rises, most of which has been blamed on Saudi airstrikes.

The congressional angst was further stoked last month when coalition forces, led by the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive on the key port of Hodeida despite international warnings that such an assault could be catastrophic.

Under the provision included in the Senate-passed NDAA, the secretary of State would have to certify to Congress that the Saudi coalition is undertaking efforts to end the civil war; alleviate the humanitarian disaster by increasing access to food, fuel and medicine; reduce delays in shipments of humanitarian supplies; and reduce the risk of harm to civilians.

Without the certification, the United States would be banned from refueling Saudi coalition aircraft for missions exclusively focused on the war in Yemen. The United States could still refuel coalition aircraft for certain other missions, such as those against al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The secretary could also issue a waiver allowing the refueling for national security reasons. The waiver could not be granted without submitting a detailed justification to Congress.

On Monday, a staffer told reporters the language in the final NDAA was adjusted to specify Emirati planes also would be banned from getting U.S. refueling without the certification.

The White House said last month that it "strongly objects" to the provision in the Senate bill that would place restrictions on Saudi Arabia.

“The administration shares the concern of the Congress regarding the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” the statement of administration policy said. “Section 1266 inaccurately implies, however, that the Saudi-led coalition is the only party to the conflict whose actions have resulted in the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. The provision fails to address material support the Government of Iran has provided to the Houthis in order to foment the conflict in Yemen in opposition to the Yemeni government.”