Defying Trump, US Senate advances measure to end support for Saudis in Yemen


WASHINGTON: In a rare break with President Donald Trump, the US Senate voted on Wednesday to move ahead with a resolution that would end US military support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in the war in Yemen.

Eleven of Trump’s fellow Republicans voted with Democrats to provide the 60 votes needed to advance the war powers resolution in the Republican-led chamber, paving the way for debate and a vote on US involvement in a conflict that has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

The vote was largely symbolic because the House of Representatives is not expected to take the matter up this year. Trump has threatened a veto.

But backers of the resolution said it sent an important message that lawmakers are unhappy with the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and angry about the lack of a strong US response to the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

The Trump administration had urged Congress not to oppose US fueling and other support for the Saudi-led coalition as it battles the Houthis, Muslim fighters viewed by Yemen’s neighbours as agents of Iran.

Earlier on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the administration’s handling of Khashoggi’s killing.

Pompeo repeated his assertion there was no direct evidence linking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the October 2 killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul, despite an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that it was likely he ordered the killing.

Riyadh initially denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, then offered contradictory explanations, including that he was killed in a rogue operation.

Trump condemned the murder but has stood by the Saudi crown prince. “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,” Trump told Reuters on Tuesday in an Oval Office interview.

Briefings for lawmakers

CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed leaders of the House of Representatives behind closed doors about the killing. After the classified briefing, House members said they had not heard anything to change their minds about Khashoggi’s death.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, likely the next chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January, said he intended to hold hearings starting early next year on all aspects of Saudi behaviour and the US-Saudi relationship.

“Saudi Arabia’s an important … partner, but I don’t think we can simply look the other way when things happen and talk about business as usual,” Engel said.

Haspel had already briefed Senate leaders. Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who held a separate briefing for the entire Senate, are due to discuss Saudi Arabia with the entire House on Thursday.

Khashoggi’s death sent shockwaves around the world and has drawn outrage from Congress. Many lawmakers, including some Republicans, also strongly criticize the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

But several have urged that Congress keep the Yemen conflict separate from anger over the killing of Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist.

They view Saudi Arabia as an essential counterweight in the Middle East to Iran, arch-enemy of close US ally Israel. White House officials see Saudi support as a linchpin for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan yet to be unveiled by the Trump administration.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem that Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East must be taken into account in responding to Khashoggi’s “horrific” fate.

“If Saudi Arabia were to be destabilized, the world would be destabilized,” Netanyahu told foreign reporters, speaking in English.

There are at least three Saudi-related pieces of legislation making their war through the US Senate.

Washington imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials last month over the killing, stopping short of action that might affect arms deals Trump has vowed to preserve.