Democratic members of Congress have vowed to oppose future arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid its ongoing conflict in Yemen, and have criticized U.S. military assistance even as Pentagon officials continue to express support.

Despite previous attempts to limit weapon sales, the backlash heard since a coalition-directed airstrike hit a Yemeni school bus in early August could be a sign of increased congressional support for blocking future precision-guided munitions (PGM) sales to Riyadh, experts said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) before the Senate calls for a withdrawal of U.S. participation in the military campaign in Yemen. Photo: C-SPAN
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) before the Senate calls for a withdrawal of U.S. participation in the military campaign in Yemen. Photo: C-SPAN

The sheer number of lawmakers from both parties who are now engaged on the topic of U.S. aid to the coalition is encouraging, said Kate Gould, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm.

“I think patience on the Hill is certainly wearing thin,” she said.

For the past three years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has provided munitions as well as aerial refueling and logistical support to a coalition of Saudi and Emirati forces who are battling Houthi rebels that they claim are backed by Iran. Back in June, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, vowing to block the sale of tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions until more public testimony is provided that justifies the U.S. aid to Saudi-led forces.

In 2016 and 2017, lawmakers from both parties proposed blocking arms sales to Riyadh as a consequence of what were seen as humanitarian crises carried out by the coalition, but both efforts ultimately failed to garner enough votes on the Senate floor.

But the fact that more than 40 senators voted in 2016 to block arms sales “was a sign that there was tension there,” said Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.

More recently, Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on Aug. 29 issued a letter to officials requesting the Trump administration release a certification related to the war in Yemen. Both senators successfully lobbied for a piece of legislation in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), requiring the secretary of state to submit an unclassified certification on the subject by Sept. 12.

In his first on-camera press briefing since April, Mattis assured reporters that “On Yemen, we support our partner Saudi Arabia’s sovereign right to self-defense, and we recognize the end of the conflict requires a political solution.”

The Pentagon’s goal in assisting the coalition is “to try and keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum,” Mattis said in the Aug. 28 briefing at the Pentagon.

The Defense Department is “constantly reviewing” support for the coalition, he added. But that support is “not unconditional,” he noted. The countries must prove that they are doing “everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life, and they support the U.N.-brokered peace process.”

Despite the tragic accident, the Pentagon has not seen any “callous disregard by the people we’re working with, so we will continue to work with them,” he said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the Yemeni conflict, has previously introduced amendments that would curb assistance to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Although none of those amendments have yet made it into law, he recently told reporters to expect more opposition to future proposed weapon sales.

He has previously called for more oversight of how Riyadh uses its weapons once they are sold. But the idea that the United States can control the way another sovereign government uses the equipment after the sale is “a standard that just can’t be met,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Legislators will have to determine where the line is that the proposed influence gained through such sales is not offset by the potential damage to U.S. security or humanitarian interests, he noted.

Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, said that the U.S. government makes “considered decisions” about who it sells military equipment to and how it can make sure that equipment is being used in the intended manner. That being said, defense sales “are just one tool in the foreign policy toolbox,” to include economic and human rights directives, he added in an emailed statement.

The next notification of a proposed precision-guided munitions sale to Saudi Arabia will likely be followed by a resolution of disapproval right away, Gould noted. Murphy said Aug. 28 that he was prepared to introduce such a statement if and when the notification arrives, adding, “We need to cut our losses.”

If a vote on Saudi Arabian arms sales were held today, it could receive even more support than any past efforts, Gould noted. But the movement is especially likely to grow if Democrats reclaim the majority after the November elections, she added.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), currently ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and a vocal opponent of U.S. military aid in Yemen, would be widely expected to take up the gavel should the majority switch, Gould said. “He would have the ability to set the agenda for his committee on … what deals he wants to see.”

Major arms sellers will be following the election results and lawmakers’ statements on the upcoming Saudi arms deal closely, Abramson noted. “Industry does not want to have pictures of markings of their weapons next to coffins of children, so they will be paying attention to this and wanting to avoid reputational risk and wanting to act responsibly.”