Mr. President, I rise today to express my concern about the continued violence and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and to share my views on the resolution that is currently before us.
The conflict in Yemen has persisted for far too long. I strongly support the efforts of the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths to bring the internationally recognized Government of Yemen and the Houthis to the negotiating table in the near future with the goal of reaching a sustainable political solution. I also welcome the call by Secretary Mattis and others for a cease fire that would provide space for such negotiations to occur while also providing a measure of relief to the Yemeni population that has suffered so horrifically during this conflict.
According to the United Nations, half of Yemen’s population – approximately 14 million people – are on the brink of famine and entirely reliant on external aid for their own survival. These challenges have been exacerbated by mass displacement in much of the country and recent fighting in the vicinity of Hudaydah, one of Yemen’s only functioning ports through which approximately 70 percent of Yemen’s food and other supplies enter the country. Even where food is available for purchase, reports indicate that currency inflation has made it too expensive for most Yemenis to afford. More must be done by both the coalition and the Houthis to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into and throughout Yemen.
I also have significant concerns about persistent reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure in Yemen caused by both the Houthis and the coalition of armed forces led primarily by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the United Nations, there have been nearly 17,000 documented civilian casualties since the beginning of the conflict – although that number is likely much higher given the difficulty of investigating such incidents in a conflict zone. Most of these casualties have been the result of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
Unfortunately, well-intentioned efforts by the U.S to help the coalition avoid civilian casualties have not produced sufficient results. 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. Secretary Pompeo’s September certification that the coalition is taking “demonstrable action” to reduce the risk to civilians does not seem to be borne out by the facts on the ground. According to reports, civilian casualty incidents increased dramatically over the summer. Indeed, Secretary Pompeo’s own certification acknowledged that “Recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting processes” and “Investigations have not yielded accountability measures” into the behavior of coalition pilots flying missions into Yemen.
Any U.S. support to 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 non-combat purposes and that which could be used to enable offensive military operations in the Yemeni civil war. I strongly support the recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Mattis that the U.S. would no longer provide aerial refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition – an outcome I have long advocated for.
Earlier this year, I led an effort with Senator Blumenthal and a number of other colleagues to raise concern about the apparent inability of the Department of Defense to account for required reimbursements from members of the Saudi-led coalition for aerial refueling support provided by the United States. We were informed yesterday afternoon that, as a result of our inquiry, the Department has “found errors in its accounting” and would now be seeking full reimbursement from Saudi Arabia and UAE for aerial refueling support provided from March 2015 through September of this year – an action that is expected to recover millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds.
Going forward, I believe that any U.S. assistance to members of the Saudi-led coalition should be explicitly limited to the following objectives: (1) enabling counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and ISIS; (2) defending the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and UAE, including against ballistic missile and UAV threats; (3) preserving freedom of navigation in the maritime environment around Yemen; and (4) enhancing the training and professionalism of their armed forces with a primary focus on the adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict and the prevention of civilian casualties. With particular regard to defense against ballistic missile and UAV threats, the United States cannot be in the positon of providing targeting information in Yemen that would be misused by Saudi or UAE forces either deliberately or through carelessness.
I recently joined a bipartisan group of colleagues in introducing a bill that would advance these principles. Among other things, the bill would: (1) suspend offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia; (2) prohibit a resumption of U.S. refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft; and (3) require sanctions for persons blocking humanitarian access and those who are supporting the Houthis in Yemen. I believe these actions would contribute to a resolution of the conflict in Yemen by making best use of the tools and leverage available to the United States.
The United States can and should engage with the Saudi-led coalition if there is a possibility that we can help minimize collateral damage by providing them with training and advice on best practices. To date, such engagement by U.S. military personnel has resulted in the incorporation of a no-strike list into target development procedures, a cessation of the use of cluster munitions, and the formation of Joint Incident Assessment Teams to investigate strikes that result in collateral damage. These are positive steps, but it is clear that the coalition has not sufficiently minimized the impact of the war on Yemeni civilians and more must be done.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE face a significant threat from Houthi rebels armed with ballistic missiles – apparently with the technical assistance of Iran. There have reportedly been dozens of such attacks against Saudi Arabia since the spring of 2015, including against numerous civilian targets. I support the right of our partners to defend themselves from these threats and believe that continued sharing of U.S. intelligence for strictly defensive purposes, not to be used as an excuse for offensive operations in Yemen, is appropriate.
I continue to support U.S. engagement for the purposes and in accordance with the principles outlined above – activities which I do not believe conflict with the War Powers Resolution. The resolution before us would make clear that Congress does not support the introduction of U.S. forces into hostilities in Yemen absent an affirmative authorization for the use of military force. I commend my colleagues Senators Sanders, Murphy, and Lee, for their continued efforts to keep focus on the need to bring an end to the violence in Yemen.
When we last considered this resolution 8 months ago, I was hopeful that a negotiated settlement to the conflict was attainable and expressed concern about the possibility of escalation. I also hoped that the principles that I articulated above could be rigorously adhered to. Unfortunately, since that time, fighting in Yemen has continued to intensify, civilian casualty incidents have risen, and the humanitarian crisis has only worsened. The status quo cannot persist and the U.S. Senate should take every opportunity to make its views clear. For that reason, I intend to support this resolution.
Moreover, the Administration must make it clear to both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis that there is no military solution to this conflict and the time has come to reach a negotiated settlement. The conflict in Yemen has negatively impacted the strategic security interests of the Saudis, Emiratis, and the United States. It has emboldened Iran and relieved pressure on al Qaeda and ISIS. Most importantly, the conflict has resulted in the largest humanitarian disaster facing the world in recent memory. It is time for this war to stop.
It is also appropriate to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia in response to the brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi and other violations of human rights. We must ensure all individuals who played a role in directing, planning, and carrying out the murder are held accountable. Despite denials by the President, it is inconceivable to me that such an operation would be conducted without at least the awareness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, if not in it’s planning then certainly in its immediate aftermath. The Crown Prince effectively controls all levers of power in Saudi Arabia, and it is no coincidence that those who have been publicly identified as most directly responsible for the murder include his closest advisor and numerous members of the Saudi Royal Guard.
If the Saudis are now being honest – despite repeated denials and shifting explanations for the disappearance of Khashoggi – then they should voluntarily submit to an independent, international investigation. President Trump should also publicly release a declassified assessment of our intelligence community with respect to what role Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi leaders had in the murder. Finally, the Senate should immediately take up and pass the bipartisan Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018, comprehensive legislation to ensure effective Congressional oversight of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and demand meaningful accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.