- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2018

The furor generated by the apparent killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a “hit team” of top Saudi officials could have some serious blowback for one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s signature foreign policy initiatives: the increasingly troubling war in neighboring Yemen.

The fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s death also could give the U.S. government and a rising number of private critics of the conflict an opening to pressure the kingdom to scale back its conflict with Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The crown prince initiated the conflict as part of a larger proxy struggle with Iran, which Riyadh and Washington accused of supporting and supplying the rebels.

The U.S. government has been wary of rejecting the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to wipe out Houthi strongholds along western and southern Yemen since 2015.

Despite mounting criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations, the Obama and Trump administrations have backed the campaign against the Shiite rebels, in part to contain Iran and in part to remain on the good side of the hard-charging and ambitious crown prince.

But with Riyadh now reeling from accusations that the crown prince and his top aides had a hand in the death of the U.S.-based Mr. Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Washington has leverage to increase international pressure for Saudi concessions to end the Yemen war, analysts say.

“We have the opportunity … to sit down with him and say, ‘We cannot go on like this,’” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

“Now is the time for Congress to take the big step and compel an end to this war,” former National Security Council official Bruce Riedel told a Brookings Institution briefing Thursday.

Saudi Arabia has denied that the crown prince or his father, King Salman, approved of or knew about the Khashoggi killing, but the kingdom — after changing its story multiple times — admitted last week that Saudi government agents had carried out a premeditated murder and vowed to cooperate with Turkey in the investigation.

Marred by tactical mistakes, heavy civilian casualties and what U.N. officials have repeatedly described as a “humanitarian disaster” in the region’s poorest nation, the Saudi-led mission to oust the Houthis and reinstall a recognized government that is friendly to Riyadh, the Yemen war has been viewed skeptically in Washington. Members of Congress have made repeated efforts to scale back arms sales and logistical aid to the Saudi coalition to protest the war.

“There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen — much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the U.N. Security Council last week.

The Saudi campaign, which began when the crown prince was defense minister and has reportedly included the use of cluster bombs banned under international rules of war, has failed to dislodge the Houthis from their main redoubts in Yemen. A recent campaign to seize the critical port city of Hodeidah, like much of the rest of the Yemen campaign, has become mired in heavy fighting with mass civilian deaths.

PR disaster

Meant as a challenge to Iran, the war has proved a propaganda coup for Tehran while snaring its regional rival.

“It is just a quagmire that is benefiting Iran,” Mr. Indyk told reporters in a teleconference last week.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations Middle East and African studies directorate, said Riyadh “went into Yemen to counter what they called the Hezbollah invasion” and prevent Iranian influence in the country, only to have Iran increase its presence in Yemen.

“Certainly, the balance of power is with the Iranians in the region,” Mr. Cook said. The U.S. and its allies need “to convince [Riyadh] it would be better for them to get out.”

U.S. lawmakers skeptical of the Saudi war in Yemen are wasting no time increasing pressure on the kingdom.

Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, penned a blistering op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday demanding an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen.

“The war is creating the very problem the administration claims to want to solve … [and] is a strategic and moral disaster for the United States,” he wrote. He promised to reintroduce legislation in the Senate to force Washington to pull its military support.

U.S. forces in the region reportedly continue to provide Arab coalition forces in Yemen with intelligence and logistical support, and much of the advanced weaponry and military hardware in the Saudi and Emirati arsenals come from U.S. weapons manufacturers.

Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, is spearheading a bipartisan effort by nearly two dozen House lawmakers to suspend all arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia, Defense News reported last week.

“With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s time for the United States to halt all weapons sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia. Our democratic values are on the line here — and we need to step up as a country and do the right thing,” Mr. McGovern said in a statement.

President Trump expressed anger at the Khashoggi killing and is considering more sanctions for Riyadh, but the administration has made the oil-rich kingdom a centerpiece of its economic, diplomatic and military strategy for the region. There is little lawmakers can realistically do to force the administration’s hand on Yemen, a U.S. government official told The Washington Times.

Mr. Trump “believes there is a strategic benefit” to maintaining military ties with Riyadh, the official said.

If the U.S. takes a harder line against the kingdom, it is unclear how the crown prince would react, Mr. Indyk said.

“I am not sure how he will calibrate his response, whether he will suck it up or decide to retaliate,” he said. However, “I do not think he can afford a confrontation with the United States.”

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