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Ending the War on Yemen?

The Biden administration announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. This is in larger part thanks to the constant activism and mobilization of peace groups around the US. Guest host Greg Wilpert talked to Hassan el Tayyab, the Legislative Manager for Middle East Policy of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, shortly before the announcement was made. He outlines the background of the war, the history of US support, what an end to US support would mean, and what further steps need to be taken to put an end to the devastation in Yemen.

Transcript

Welcome to the Analysis News podcast. I’m your guest host, Greg Wilpert. On Thursday, February 4th, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The announcement comes five years after the Obama administration began supporting the effort, which was continued throughout the Trump administration. The war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia in coalition with eight other Arab states, represents the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

So far, the war has cost 230000 deaths, most of them from indirect causes such as lack of access to food, health services and infrastructure. 24 million Yemenis depend on food assistance. The U.S. supported the effort by supplying Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with tens of billions of dollars in advanced weaponry, mid-air refueling capacity and bomb targeting. The outgoing Trump administration made the situation even worse when it declared the government in Yemen to be a foreign terrorist organization, a declaration that took effect only one day before Biden’s inauguration.

Greg Wilpert

I conducted the following interview with Hassan El Tayyab a few days before the Biden administration announced with the withdrawal of U.S. support for the war effort, even though the announcement will significantly change the course of the war. I believe that the issues we discuss in this interview, such as the sanctions, the foreign terrorist organization designation and the importance of a new War Powers Act resolution are still valid. Hassan is the legislative manager for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which has been spearheading the effort for Congress to invoke the War Powers Act resolution with regard to the U.S. support for the war in Yemen. Thanks for joining me, Hassan.

Hassan El Tayyab

Thanks so much for having me, Greg.

Greg Wilpert

So, before we get into the latest developments, let’s go over what’s brought us here so far, that is with regard to the war in Yemen. Briefly, what’s the U.S. involvement been like and what has Congress done and how did all of this get started?

Hassan El Tayyab

Yeah, thank you so much. It’s a really it’s a really horrible thing that’s going on in Yemen right now. It’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on the planet and what the U.N. considers the worst place in the world to be a child. This started in 2011 when the Arab Spring took, you know, spread all over the Middle East, including Yemen. And the people nonviolently ousted the then president dictator, President Saleh and Saleh, you know, was allowed to stay in Yemen and move around freely.

Hassan El Tayyab

And they appointed a Hadi to be the interim president as they move to a more representative form of government. There’s you know, it’s kind of complex. There was corruption charges. There is still a lot of poverty. And the the Houthis rose up and ousted President Hadi with the help of the former President Saleh. And then Hadi fled to Riyadh, asked for military support, and thus the Saudi coalition was formed and the U.S. said that they would supply weapons, military support hardware, spare parts, transfers, targeting assistance, logistical support for Saudi airstrikes. And the war began in March 2015 with U.S. backing. Saudi Arabia put a full air, land and sea blockade around the entire country. There were airstrikes on civilian targets, hospitals, weddings, schools, funerals.

Hassan El Tayyab

And, you know, tens of thousands of people have been killed, innocent people, have been killed in Houthi held territory and beyond. And the blockade is just really slowly starving the entire population. Now, you know, after six years of fighting, there’s 16 million people on the brink of famine. Three million cases of cholera and covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the country. And again, this is all being done with U.S. military support. There have been several, several efforts to stop U.S. participation in the war.

Hassan El Tayyab

And, you know, they were spearheaded in the Senate in 2018 by Senator Sanders. We were able to get one of those, you know, the first Yemen War Powers Resolution was able to pass, SJ Res 54, and that, you know, that made some progress on the ground in Yemen with, you know, with regards to the Hodeidah cease fire and it helped usher in a cease fire in Yemen’s largest port. Congress forced more votes they passed and bicameral, bipartisan majorities, S.J seven in April  2019. Trump ultimately vetoed that bill and the U.S. support for the war continued. There were also emergency weapons sales in 2019 that Trump was trying to push through to support Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their munitions and just hardware that they need to keep the war going. And Congress had a hold on them, but Trump invoked these emergency powers and was able to push through, billions in weapons sales.

Hassan El Tayyab

And unfortunately, the the war just has continued and raged on, like you said. Pompeo, to make matters even worse, during this global pandemic where the administration has kept military support for the war going and even cut off humanitarian funding to large parts of Yemen, where the Houthi controlled territory, where 80 percent of the population lives, they put in place this FTO or foreign terrorist organization designation. And it’s it’s deeply problematic.

Hassan El Tayyab

One, there’s no real justification. I mean, this isn’t just a small group. This is a movement in Yemen that has basically, captured territory and occupied territory that controls humanitarian aid to millions and millions of people. Over 20 million people live in these live in these areas. And the FTO designation, as the Trump administration is outgoing, everything was so chaotic as we as we can recall with January 6th, and they tried to make life is complicated for the incoming Biden administration as possible.

Hassan El Tayyab

And one of those really, terrible, complicated things that they did was in imposing this FTO designation, which basically would cut off any humanitarians ability to do transactions in Yemen or face legal penalty or financial or prison. And so that’s deeply troubling. Also, it would put any U.N. negotiators at risk for even talking to the Houthi leadership and trying to broker a cease fire deal, which we all know is absolutely critical. And last but not least, I just think it’s pretty ironic that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are actually transferring U.S. made weapons to groups like al-Qaida Arabian Peninsula, there’s no question of whether or not they should be labeled, but we’re going to label the Houthis.

Hassan El Tayyab

So I think, again, this is just making a complex situation even more complex. There’s been almost unanimous consent that this is a bad idea among humanitarians and among diplomats at the U.N., former career civil servants and even bipartisan members of Congress have said this is just a terrible idea and needs to be reversed. Forgive me, I know I’m going on here. But one thing I will mention is that the Biden administration, they did something pretty important at the beginning of, right at the beginning of their administration and they put a pause on sanctions on the Houthis.

Hassan El Tayyab

And so that’s promising as they, as they go to review whether or not they’re going to lift the designation or not. And they said they would pause it for 30 days. Unfortunately, the U.N. is still claiming that despite the pause and sanctions, financiers and humanitarians are are still feeling like it’s a risk to do to do their important work and to get aid to so many people in Yemen. Because,  if you have to ramp up a lot of humanitarian aid delivery, if you don’t know if you’re going to be penalized for that in a month’s time, that really restricts your ability to make plans and and really, makes you rethink doing humanitarian trade in Yemen.

Hassan El Tayyab

So absolutely, we need to end support for the war and weapons sales for the war and lift this designation, among many other things we need to do.

Greg Wilpert

But what about the claim that I guess both the Trump administration has made and in other occasions has been made that that the sanctions, which also includes the FTO designation, makes exceptions for food and medical deliveries, basically for humanitarian aid?

Hassan El Tayyab

Yeah, I mean, that’s a good point. But the problem is there are already so many risks to doing business in Yemen or to doing any transactions in Yemen because of the violence, because of the blockade, U.N. approved ships get stopped in Hodeidah harbor by the Saudi blockade and are unable to even get in. And oftentimes we’ve seen food and food rot in these ships as they’re waiting to get offloaded. And, you know, if you’ve got millions of people living on the brink of famine, 50,000 people, according to the U.N., actually living in a famine, you know, that’s that makes it a lot more challenging and more difficult.

Hassan El Tayyab

So if you add in the blockade, if you add that to the FTO designation and the fact that, you know, people can’t plan ahead, it makes it really difficult to do humanitarian aid work. And that’s exactly why we need to lift this terrible, disastrous FTO designation immediately.

Greg Wilpert

Now, Biden and also his newly minted secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, have on various occasions actually expressed their opposition to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in this war. Now, Biden has passed something like 40 executive orders since taking office almost two weeks ago. And Yemen hasn’t been among them, except for perhaps what you said earlier about this review. But are this hold on on on sanctions.

Greg Wilpert

But what can, in total, I mean, you mentioned already, of course, the FTO designation, but what else can Biden do right now to to stop the U.S. support for this effort, for this war in Yemen?

Hassan El Tayyab

OK, great question. That’s that’s the that’s the most important question we have so far. Right. What have they done and what can they do? They did put the put a pause in the sanctions for 30 days. That was good. They need to lift the FTO designation. The second thing is they actually put a freeze on new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is a good start. I mean, that we didn’t have a freeze during the Trump years.

Hassan El Tayyab

So it’s good that that that’s in place. That said, they haven’t actually blocked delivery or said, no, we’re not going to be, selling any more weapons to Saudi Arabia in the UAE. So we definitely need that. We also need them to end support for the war, to sign an executive order and say that we’re no longer. Going to be doing targeting assistance for coalition airstrikes, we’re not going to be doing any logistical support, we’re not going to be doing intel sharing, we’re not going to be doing spare parts transfers for all the hardware that goes into keeping these warplanes in the air.

Hassan El Tayyab

Another thing that we need to do is lift the suspension on humanitarian aid, not just lift the suspension, but because the Trump administration, they cut all sorts of funding to the U.N., WHO, WFP and 75 percent of Yemen’s humanitarian aid work essentially got cut by by the administration. And they also suspended 73 million dollars of USAID funding in March of 2020. So we need to end the suspension and get aid aid going to all parts of Yemen.

Hassan El Tayyab

We also need to expand humanitarian aid and pressure other parties in the international community to expand their aid using diplomacy. And Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they have… The UAE, it’s worth noting, they pledge nothing last year and gave nothing, even though they are a main contributor of the violence in Yemen. So those are all really important things. And I also think we need to get the administration to call on Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, because that is a massive killer in Yemen, cutting off the flow of food, fuel, medicine, clean water, humanitarian assistance, vaccines, you name it.

We need to end the blockade. One thing I did think it’s important to mention is that the administration has a role to play, but Congress also has a role to play. And and like you said at the top of the segment, we’re supporting and supportive of doing another Yemen war powers resolution and getting Biden to sign it. So Representative Ro Khanna has made it pretty clear that he intends to introduce another Yemen war powers resolution. And he says that Senator Sanders is considering supporting as well, so everything we can do in the grassroots is to get these members to introduce these war powers resolutions, make sure that the Congress is on board and force A vote, and B, and have Biden be the first president in U.S. history since the original passage of the 1973 War Powers Act have him be the first president to sign a war powers into law.

Greg Wilpert

Why do you think it would be so important, let’s say if he does act, to still have this War Powers Resolution to pass and have him sign it?

Hassan El Tayyab

Yeah, absolutely. I get that question a lot. People are like, well, we should just let Biden do his thing. You know, it’s going to you know, it’s early on. He’s already done all these executive orders. You know, let’s just give him the opportunity to do it. And I think, one, we have to remember, we lived through four years of a rogue executive with no respect for Article one powers or the Congress at all.

Hassan El Tayyab

I mean, as far as as far as, from my vantage point here in Washington, D.C., it didn’t seem like the president really cared that a bipartisan, bicameral majority is a lot of people in his own party said that the war in Yemen should end. And, Article one, Section eight of the Constitution says that only Congress can declare war. And so the war was never authorized. Congress, with majorities in both chambers, said they wanted to end it, couldn’t do it.

Hassan El Tayyab

If we got Biden to sign this into law, it will be the first time that this has happened and will establish a really important constitutional precedent that war powers resolutions are, in fact, you know, the law of the land, they’re constitutionally supported by the executive. So that’s one of the next thing is that executive orders can be torn up by another president and we want to make sure that no president can just start U.S. military support for another Saudi intervention or UAE intervention in Yemen.

Hassan El Tayyab

And I mean, that’s critical. We just don’t know what’s going to happen in four years and we don’t know how the Yemen war is going to play out. So we have to get this into law and not just be an executive order that can be torn up. Last but not least, U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. He’s trying to negotiate a cease fire in Yemen. And I think having Biden with bipartisan majorities in Congress backing him up on that. That’s leverage that Martin Griffiths can use in negotiations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Houthis and the FTC and the Hadi government to finally get a cease fire deal. And I think having that having that signed into law and not just be an executive order is going to give us a lot of leverage to draw down the violence.

Greg Wilpert

Well, that was actually going to be my next question, which is that, I mean, if the U.S. were to end its support for the Yemen war, what would it mean actually for Saudi Arabia’s effort to continue that and already basically answered it, but I was just wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. I mean, what would be the next step, a cease fire? Would would they actually agree to that, do you think? And and then, of course, beyond that, what does that mean for Yemen?

Hassan El Tayyab

So I think you bring up a good point, and I think it is important to mention that, if the U.S. ends our military participation in the war, it’s going to be very difficult for the Saudi led coalition to keep airstrikes going. I mean, if we end some of the participation in all of it, that’s a different story.

Hassan El Tayyab

But if we absolutely cut off all the things I mentioned, the targeting assistance, the spare parts transfers that actually keep the war planes in the air, like every time in 15 or an F-16 lands, the tires almost have to be replaced every time. And you can’t just go to Wal-Mart to get these things. You know, you can you have to go to U.S. contractors. And, you know, without those that flow of spare parts, it’s going to be really difficult.

Hassan El Tayyab

And it’s not like China can just or China or Russia can just swoop in and completely replace all this U.S. hardware in a short short period of time. So Saudi Arabia is kind of stuck with U.S. hardware for a while. We have a lot of leverage here. So, one, I think it’s going to grind the air strikes to a halt. I think it’s going to be really difficult for them to keep the blockade going and put them in a position where I think they’re more likely to agree to a peace process and a negotiated settlement that’s ultimately needed.

Hassan El Tayyab

And stop using this moral authority that the United States is essentially giving the coalition to to wreak havoc on school children and and innocent civilians all over Yemen who are starving to death. And so, yeah, we’ve we’ve got yeah, we’ve got a lot of leverage in cutting off military support, I think is one of many things we need to do to end this conflict.

Greg Wilpert

Well, before we conclude, I just want to ask one more question that goes a little bit beyond the issue of Yemen specifically. That is, you know, the U.S. has in recent years really perfected the use of sanctions as a way of conducting war without a declaration of war and without actually dropping any bombs, but still killing tens of thousands of civilians in several different countries. I mean, there’s something like two dozen countries that are currently being sanctioned by the U.S. to varying degrees, and some of them very extremely.

Greg Wilpert

I mean, Yemen, of course, is one of the worst examples, but there are certainly others such as Venezuela and Iran at the moment. Now, a representative of Minnesota has recognized the danger that such unilateral presidential power represents and has introduced a bill to basically require a kind of war powers resolution to enforce or to impose sanctions. That is with the approval of only that. It would only happen with the approval of Congress. What do you think of that proposal and what else do you think needs to be done on a legislative level to deal with the president’s or the executive’s ability to wage war?

Hassan El Tayyab

Yeah, and lift sanctions and impose sanctions. This is such a big issue. Sanctions are basically another form of warfare and are killing millions, or I shouldn’t say killing millions, but impacting and creating a human humanitarian crisis for millions of people all over the planet. And you look at Iran, they don’t have access to PPE testing kits, respirators, sanitizer in the way that they should. And Iranian nurses right now are dying at higher rates than other health care professionals around the world.

Hassan El Tayyab

And it’s really resulting in the spread of covid-19. And and everybody knows that covid-19 anywhere is a threat to everybody everywhere, because it’s not you know, the virus can spread, the virus can mutate. So we really have to think think about sanctions the whole new way, especially during this global pandemic. Now, Representative Ilhan Omar’s bill, I think is a really good step in the right direction because it requires Congress to basically approve of new sanctions.

Hassan El Tayyab

And so the executive branch, the burden of proof would be on the executive branch and to say why this is important for us to do for our national security. And and it really creates this other step for Congress to have oversight over the executive branch. And I think that’s just really important. There are lots of things we can do. A lot of them, unfortunately, has to has to happen at the executive level, you know, things like, you know, organizations like OFAC, or the Treasury, Commerce, you know, they’ve just made this policy of putting sanctions, you know, allowing sanctions on all these countries for questionable gains and foreign policy gains.

Hassan El Tayyab

So I think Ilhan Omar’s is exactly the right direction. I also think we need an emergency general license that’s worldwide, that covers every sanction country and location on Earth to allow any coronavirus related support to health care professionals around the world, including the vaccine, PPE testing kits, respirator sanitizer. So that’s that’s the bottom line. We should really consider lifting sanctions, economic sanctions during this pandemic just to make sure that, you know, countries like Iran and Venezuela and Cuba have the resources they need to purchase all of this really important equipment and so that more and more people don’t fall into poverty.

Hassan El Tayyab

Another thing that I think that I’ve started to discuss with people on the Hill, is the idea of also flipping the script not just on sanctions, but on FTO designations, because right now, foreign terrorist organization, for example, a foreign terrorist organization, I mean, alphabet soup over here. And what that right now, the executive branch, the State Department, can just say, well, let’s see that group. We’re going to label them a terrorist organization.

Hassan El Tayyab

Congress has literally seven calendar days to pass a resolution in the House, pass it in the Senate, get it to the president’s desk that the president, because they came from their administration, would most likely veto that resolution. It would come back and then they would need a two thirds majority, 67 votes in the Senate to be able to beat that override, which is kind of impossible if you think about the, you know, what this designation could mean to humanitarian aid operations in Yemen in this Houthi held territory.

Hassan El Tayyab

It’s devastating. I mean, the U.N. thinks that this could plunge five million people into famine. I mean, that kind of power is is it’s just one executive branch can make that decision unilaterally. That’s really troubling. So I was thinking it might be good to also flip the script on FTO designations and require, you know, a longer period for Congress to review it before it comes into effect, you know, at least 30 to maybe 90 days and also require congressional approval to have an FTO come come into being and and put the burden of proof on the executive branch. So that’s another policy solution among among many that we need.

Greg Wilpert

Sounds good. Well, we’ve covered a lot. I think we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Hassan El Tayyab, legislative manager for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Thanks again, Hassan, for having joined me today.

Hassan El Tayyab

Thank you so much, Greg.

Greg Wilpert

And thanks to our listeners for tuning in to the analysis, dot news. If you like programs such as this one, please visit our website and make a donation to the analysis so we can keep doing this.

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One Comment

  1. Great interview. However, The Friends need to know that USAid = regime change. Any “aid” going into Yemen by USAid isn’t going there to help people, but to create more strife. Lifting the trade sanctions will be enough.

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