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Trump’s veto on Yemen war sets stage for continued stalemate, analysts say

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/18/2019 Missy Ryan, Karoun Demirjian
a person walking down a dirt road: A child passes graves marked by portraits of the dead in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, on April 17, 2019. They are believed to have been killed in the country’s conflict. © Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A child passes graves marked by portraits of the dead in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, on April 17, 2019. They are believed to have been killed in the country’s conflict.

President Trump’s veto of legislation designed to disentangle the United States from a punishing war in Yemen sets the stage for a continued stalemate in the conflict, former officials and analysts said, with civilians likely to pay the highest price.

The president, in his second veto since taking office, depicted the unprecedented effort by lawmakers to use war-powers authorities to end military support to Saudi Arabia and an allied coalition as an “unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities.”

The move sought to check a bipartisan groundswell of frustration with the U.S. role in a war that has produced the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and, lawmakers from both parties say, made the United States complicit in civilian deaths.

U.N. negotiators have struggled to break an extended impasse between Houthi rebels, who have received military support from Iran, and local forces loyal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Stephen Seche, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen under two presidents and is now executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute, said Trump’s widely expected decision telegraphed a continuation of his strong support to Persian Gulf Arab nations, reinforcing the same dynamics that had allowed the war to fester for four years.

Supporters of the war-powers resolution, which would have cut off U.S. logistical support and intelligence sharing to the coalition, had hoped its passage would incentivize gulf nations to take new steps to end the fighting.

The veto, in contrast, “says, ‘Yes, we’re going to continue to align ourselves very closely with our gulf partners,’ ” Seche said. “The status quo prevails.”

While the president has said little publicly about the war, he has highlighted the United States’ shared interests with Saudi Arabia and other gulf allies and trumpeted their massive purchases of U.S. weaponry.

In keeping with the administration’s campaign to increase pressure on Iran, Trump’s top advisers have taken a hard-line approach to Yemen, blaming Tehran for the fighting and equating the Houthis, who do not have long-standing deep links to Iran, to established proxy groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah.

Years of civil conflict have devastated Yemen, which was already the Arab world’s poorest country before the war. Images of starving children have galvanized global attention, but a breakthrough in U.N.-brokered peace consultations remains elusive.

This week, the United Nations’ envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told members of the U.N. Security Council that some progress had been made in drafting plans to remove troops from Hodeidah, a port city that has emerged as a bottleneck in efforts to kindle full-fledged peace talks.

Griffiths appealed to U.N. members for urgent action while acknowledging that his attempt to execute confidence-building measures could fail.

“Yemen bleeds. Its people go hungry. . . . In many ways, it is one of the world’s most tragic places,” Griffiths said. “This is the spur that encourages us to imagine beyond Hodeidah that we could see progress towards that [political] solution. “

Radhya Almutawakel, chairwoman of Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organization, said Trump’s veto amounted to “an announcement of continued suffering for millions of civilians in Yemen.”

“The right kind of action by this powerful country could end this catastrophe,” she said.

But Robert Malley, a senior White House official during the Obama administration and now president of the International Crisis Group, said Congress’s passing the resolution had altered the gulf nations’ thinking on the war, no matter Trump’s veto.

“The mood is quite different from what it was six months or a year ago in terms of understanding the toll this is taking, on the Yemeni people first and foremost, and the toll it’s taking on their relationships with the United States,” Malley said. “They understand that something has shifted here, and continuation of the war is going to come at a cost.”

Gulf officials, like the Trump administration, accuse the Houthis of holding up implementation of Griffiths’s road map.

But analysts say both sides are at fault.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not provide an immediate comment on Trump’s veto. But Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, described the move as “a positive signal of US resolve” toward American allies. “Common strategic interests are best served with this clear commitment,” he said in a Twitter message.

Pentagon officials have long opposed moves to restrict military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been among important U.S. counterterrorism partners since 2001. But they have also sought to limit their involvement in the war as the gulf coalition comes under criticism for airstrikes on civilian targets.

For years, U.S. tanker aircraft refueled gulf jets conducting operations over Yemen, but that assistance was halted last fall.

Officials said that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan has tried to focus the Pentagon on its own operation in Yemen, a parallel campaign against al-Qaeda militants, while engaging with Griffiths.

On Capitol Hill, proponents of curbing Saudi Arabia’s war effort have not hammered out a strategy for regrouping after Trump’s veto. But Democrats are eyeing bipartisan legislation that would pair a near-complete cessation of weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia over its Yemen campaign with sanctions for Saudi leaders over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as the next focus of their efforts.

At present, such a measure is on offer only in the Senate, where Sens. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) joined late last year with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and others to write the comprehensive bill.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see an effort in the House to go in that direction. Maybe even in a way that could get bipartisan support,” said Tim Mulvey, a spokesman for Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mulvey said he did not know what the specifics of such a measure would look like in the House but noted that the goal was to achieve “something that’s designed to really change Saudi behavior.”

But any sweeping effort must also pass muster in the Senate, where Republican leaders have yet to endorse any measure now on offer to restrain Saudi Arabia — but are also hinting that they think something must be done to address the current state of affairs.

“I have been steadily crafting legislation that can garner significant support and could actually become law,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement. “Progress has been made . . . there is more to be done.”

But Democratic leaders do not know whether they would support legislation from Risch.

There is no chance of overriding the president’s veto of the war-powers resolution, which only seven Senate Republicans and 18 House Republicans voted to support. At this juncture, there is also resistance in many parts of the GOP to bring any Yemen-related measure to the floor that censures only Saudi Arabia, and not Iran for backing the Houthi rebels on the other side of Yemen’s civil war.

Trump’s continued support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also complicated matters for Republicans.

“It’s a tough situation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters during a roundtable last week, noting that Khashoggi’s killing was an “outrageous act” but arguing that it had overshadowed “a lot of reform” underway in Saudi Arabia — and reminding that “ we do appreciate having an ally against the Iranians.”

If lawmakers are unable to coalesce around new legislation to restrain Saudi Arabia, they probably will have to look to the annual defense authorization bill or appropriations measures as possible vehicles.

missy.ryan@washpost.com

karoun.demirjian@washpost.com

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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