Politics

Yemen Vote in Senate, Russia Meddling Add to U.S.-Saudi Summit Intrigue

Senate to vote on Yemen war measure while crown prince is on U.S. soil

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, says the chamber will vote on a resolution calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Yemen this week, the same time Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud will be in the United States. Saudi Arabia has increasingly found itself bogged down in the Yemeni civil war. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Russia’s actions in the Middle East and South Asia are among the most-pressing topics President Donald Trump wants to discuss with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud when they huddle Tuesday, and an upcoming vote in the Senate on Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Yemen could add to the agenda as well. 

Trump and Salman — who has rocketed up the leadership totem pole of Saudi Arabia’s royal family — are scheduled to meet at the White House for a mini-summit. A senior administration official told reporters Monday that along with Russia’s often double-dealing in the region, trying to “push” Saudi leaders to seek a serious political solution to the conflict in Yemen and combating Iran will be atop the agenda.

The summit comes as the Senate is preparing to vote on a measure that reflects a bipartisan souring on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the floor Monday that a vote on a privileged resolution directing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Yemen is expected this week.

Salman and his fellow Saudi leaders would have to find a way to replace American expertise and muscle should Congress require American forces to be removed. The resolution is being pushed by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

But opposing it are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the White House and the Pentagon. The vote will be held, if Cornyn’s prediction holds, while the Saudi leader is on American soil during a multi-city visit. He arrives Monday for a two-week stay that will include the pursuit of $35 billion in proposed U.S.-Saudi commercial deals.

That potential pushing comes as lawmakers from both parties mull ways to prevent the United States from being partly responsible — via its military support to the Kingdom — for additional civilian deaths in Yemen. The Saudi government is knee-deep in its neighbor’s civil conflict as a massive U.S. weapons sale to the Kingdom is pending. The UN contends 10,000 civilians have lost their lives in that years-long conflict, with another 40,000 suffering injuries.

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The Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to assist Syria’s hardline president, Bashar al-Assad, and anti-Saudi fighters in Yemen that are aligned with Iran. On the latter, Russian officials regularly do things like provide those Yemeni fighters more and more accurate missile systems only to turn around and offer Saudi Arabia their country’s most advanced missile defense platforms.

And those offers to the Kingdom almost always come after Russia “drives up the price” globally for the anti-missile systems, the senior administration official said.

The senior official’s tough words about Russia came a few days after the Trump administration slapped new sanctions on two dozen Russian entities and individuals who were involved in meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and what other senior officials described as an “ongoing” cyber attack on America’s energy sector. Other than a previous round of election meddling-related sanctions, the Trump administration — and the president himself — largely had rarely criticized Putin and his government.

When Trump and the 32-year-old Salman meet Tuesday, “part of the discussion … will be to consider how the Russians are trying to exploit these situations to their benefit,” the official said.

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For instance, Russia has offered to sell “advanced” tanks and attack aircraft to Iran once provisions of Tehran’s nuclear pact with the U.S. and others world powers expire, the senior official said.

“That is just one example, of how the Russians are helpful on one hand” then take another action that hinders the Kingdom’s security, he said.

Notably, amid reports Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, could soon be fired or sent back to the Army, the official said he will have dinner Tuesday with Salman to continue the two allies’ strategic talks.

In another McMaster development, the United States, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are establishing a working group at the national security adviser level.

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