Defense

Mattis Asks Senate Not To Cut Off Support For Saudi War In Yemen

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has asked lawmakers to defeat a bipartisan Senate resolution that would end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, saying it would undermine Washington’s close relationship with the kingdom.

In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday, Mattis urged senators to defeat a War Powers resolution introduced late in February by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The Lee-Sanders resolution aims to end all U.S. military intervention in Yemen that is not specifically directed against al-Qaeda or “associated forces.” If passed, it risks Saudi cooperation on other U.S. priorities in the Middle East, Mattis said.

“New restrictions on this 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,” he wrote in the letter, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mattis’ letter to McConnell is part of an aggressive response by the Pentagon to turn lawmakers against the resolution, which could come up for a vote next week. Pentagon officials recently briefed Congressional staff on U.S. policy in Yemen, with the aim of convincing lawmakers that U.S. support for the Saudi war is critical to strategic interests in the region.

The push comes ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington next week. The heir to the Saudi throne has sought to strengthen Riyadh’s already close ties to Washington, working closely with President Donald Trump’s administration on a wide range of issues, including countering Iran and developing an Israel-Palestinian peace plan.

At bin Salman’s direction, Saudi Arabia has stepped up a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels who overthrew Yemen’s Saudi-friendly government in 2014. The war has turned into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes — more than 10,000 people have been killed and millions more are at risk of widespread famine and disease.

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U.S. assistance to the Saudi coalition includes refueling for fighter jets carrying out air strikes, along with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. The Trump administration, like its predecessor, insists such involvement doesn’t require Congressional authorization.

Lee and Sanders, on the other hand, say Congress’ constitutional war-making powers cover the Saudi war, even if U.S. troops are not deployed in support of it. They also argue U.S. military operations in Yemen that don’t target al-Qaeda or related militants are not covered by any existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

“The U.S. government claims that it’s not engaged in hostilities unless U.S. troops are on the ground being shot at by the enemy,” Lee said on the floor Tuesday, according to The Washington Post. “It stretches the imagination, and it stretches the English language beyond its breaking point to suggest the U.S. military is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen.”

In his letter, Mattis wrote that “withdrawing U.S. 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.”

Realist foreign policy scholar Daniel Larison disputes that assessment, arguing that the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen has created conditions for Islamic militants to thrive, while driving the Houthi rebels further into the arms of Iranian sponsors.

“The absurdity of this intervention is that it was dishonestly sold as a war against Iranian ‘expansionism’ and yet it has done more to aid Iran than anything Iran’s government could have done on its own,” Larison wrote Thursday in a blog post for The American Conservative. “Missile strikes on Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be happening if the Saudis and their allies weren’t regularly bombing Yemeni cities.”

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