Mr. President, I rise today to express my concern about the continued deterioration of the situation in Yemen and to share my views about the resolution that is currently before us. The military conflict going on in Yemen has gone on for far too long and has affected tens of millions of civilians who face displacement, famine, and a widespread cholera outbreak. According to the United Nations, more than 15,000 Yemenis have been killed or injured since the war began in March of 2015. The humanitarian situation there has been described as the worst in the world, with more than two-thirds of Yemen’s approximately 29 million people facing severe food shortages. An outbreak of cholera has already infected at least 1 million people, marking the worst such outbreak in decades.
Continued instability in Yemen also benefits our adversaries. While we have sought to maintain pressure on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and ISIS, the lack of a functioning government or state security apparatus inhibits our ability to go after these groups. Additionally, it is clear that Iran has taken advantage of the current situation to spread its malign influence and provide lethal support to the Houthis, thereby further undermining regional stability and security.
Unfortunately, we have yet to hear any strategy from the administration as to how they would propose to use U.S. diplomatic leadership to help bring about an end to the conflict in Yemen. We still do not have an Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and occasional visits by White House officials are not a replacement for sustained diplomatic efforts by our experts in the Foreign Service. I am encouraged, though, by the appointment of a new United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and hope that the U.S. Government will seek to support his efforts wherever possible. While the primary conflict in Yemen is between an Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency and a Saudi-led coalition, the United States is involved. As stated in a letter sent by Secretary Mattis to congressional leadership last week, ‘‘Since 2015, the United States has provided limited support to Saudi-led coalition military operations to restore the U.N.-recognized government of Yemen and preserve Saudi territorial integrity from Houthi aligned forces in Yemen.’’
Moreover, according to Secretary Mattis, U.S. forces are not authorized to use force against the Houthis but do support the Saudi-led coalition with ‘‘intelligence sharing, military advice, and logistical support, including air-to-air refueling.’’ Last week, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Votel, testified before the Armed Services Committee that our support to the Saudi-led coalition is ‘‘primarily defensive’’ in nature and focused on the Iranian supported ballistic missile threat to Saudi Arabia that originates in Yemen, maritime threats to international shipping in the Bab el Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, the defense of Saudi Arabia’s southern border, and counterterrorism. However, General Votel also acknowledged that when the United States provides aerial refueling to coalition aircraft, we do not know where those aircraft then go; therefore, they could be going to conduct offensive strikes against Houthi targets, which may result in civilian casualties, which is a major concern for me.
Even more troubling, if these aircraft went to conduct strikes against targets outside of Yemen, the United States would be complicit in a much more dangerous and provocative activity. I have significant concerns about persistent reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure caused by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Far too many of the strikes by the coalition have killed or injured civilians and resulted in the destruction of infrastructure needed to provide basic services to the population, thereby exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. It is also clear that more must be done by both the coalition and the Houthis to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into and throughout Yemen. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations continue to express concern about their ability to access seaports and airports and difficulties in distributing aid to vulnerable populations once it is inside the country. It is important that shipments into Yemen be subject to inspection by the U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism to help prevent the transit of illicit materials in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, but all parties to the conflict in Yemen have a responsibility, including under international humanitarian law, to allow access to aid by those in need.
We are faced with a very difficult set of issues, and I certainly understand and commend my colleagues, Senators Sanders, Murphy, and Lee, for bringing this issue to the floor. The Saud iled coalition clearly must do more to end this war and must prosecute this war in a way that limits civilian casualties and the humanitarian crises. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates, or UAE, remain important partners for the United States, and we share many common interests in the region, including in the fight against al-Qaida, ISIS, and other violent extremist groups. The resolution before us would establish a blanket prohibition on all assistance to the Saudi-led coalition except for the purposes of countering al-Qaida and associated forces. While I understand the argument for this approach, I believe it would prevent us from exerting influence to limit and hopefully end the conflict. Indeed, it may even cause harm as both sides potentially act more violently. We can and should engage if there is a possibility that we can help minimize collateral damage by providing the coalition with training and advice on best practices. General Votel testified last week that U.S. assistance has contributed to improvement by the coalition on these issues. Specifically, the Department of Defense told us that engagement by U.S. military personnel has resulted in the introduction of a ‘‘no-strike’’ list. That is a process which actually puts targets off-limits and ensures that pilots and others understand those targets. They also caused a cessation—an ending—of the use of cluster munitions by Saudi-led forces and the formation of a body to investigate noncombatant casualties.
These are positive steps, but it is clear that much more must be done to minimize the impact of the war on Yemeni civilians. I support our continued engagement for that purpose. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE face a significant threat from Houthi rebels armed with ballistic missiles, apparently with the technical assistance of the Iranians. There have reportedly been dozens of attacks against Saudi Arabia since the spring of 2015, including against civilian targets like the international airport in Riyadh, which was attacked in December. I strongly support the right of our partners to defend themselves against these threats and believe that continued sharing of U.S. intelligence for defensive purposes is appropriate, especially in light of the fact that tens of thousands of U.S. civilians, military, and diplomatic personnel also face these threats while living and working in the region around Riyadh and throughout Saudi Arabia.
I also have concerns that ending all support to the Saudi-led coalition may cause the conflict to escalate. As Secretary Mattis wrote to congressional leadership this past week, restrictions on our ‘‘limited U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis—all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.’’ Secretary Mattis also expressed concern that withdrawal of our support would ‘‘embolden Iran to increase its support to the Houthis, enabling further ballistic missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and threatening vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea, thereby raising the risk of a regional conflict.’’
Therefore, I believe that support by the U.S. military of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen should not be absolutely prohibited but should be explicitly limited to the following objectives: No. 1, enabling counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and ISIS; No. 2, defending the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including against ballistic missile threats; No. 3, preserving freedom of navigation in the maritime environment around Yemen; and No. 4, enhancing the training and professionalism of their armed forces, with a primary focus on adherence to the law of armed conflict and prevention of civilian casualties.
Our support for the Saudi-led coalition needs to be considered in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. From a policy perspective, we should distinguish between assistance that is provided for defensive or noncombat purposes and that which could be used to enable offensive military operations in the Yemeni civil war. Let me be clear. I am not in favor of giving the Saudi-led coalition a blank check. In fact, I believe we should no longer provide aerial refueling assistance unless it is used to enable aircraft conducting counterterrorism missions pursuant to the 2001 authorization for use of military force or countering specific identified threats to Saudi territorial integrity. Indeed, use of our military assets to support Saudi-led coalition efforts or the efforts of other nations to conduct other operations outside this narrow scope would raise very serious legal questions.
Given its comprehensive approach, I do not believe the Sanders resolution is the appropriate vehicle for these issues to receive the careful and deliberate consideration they are due. I understand the Foreign Relations Committee may soon take up this issue, and I urge them to do that. I look forward to engaging further in those discussions when presented with the opportunity. The administration must make clear to both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis that there is no military solution to this conflict and that the time has come to reach a negotiated settlement. Congress also has an important role in setting the policy framework for the use of U.S. Armed Forces overseas and ensuring that U.S. military capabilities are only used for authorized purposes. At the same time, we should not take action that would unduly restrict our engagement with partners for legitimate purposes and, in doing so, undermine our ability to help bring an end to the conflict in Yemen, ease civilian suffering, and defend the territorial integrity of our partners. With that Mr. President, I yield the floor.