The Trump administration puts an end to the Saudi Arabian coalition's refueling plan, putting an end to the most tangible and controversial aspect of US support for the kingdom's three-year war in Yemen, said people close to the situation.
This decision comes as criticism of Saudi Arabia's conduct in the war intensified. Lawmakers on both sides have asked the United States to suspend their arms sales to Riyadh and halt the refueling of aircraft flown by the Saudi-led coalition, accused of 39, have killed thousands of without weapons civilians.
While people accustomed to discussions said that a decision should be made public in the coming days, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning III said: "We have ongoing discussions with our partners but nothing to announce for the moment. "
According to analysts, this decision would limit Saudi Arabia's ability to conduct bombing missions.
"This is the first time that the United States has taken concrete steps to limit the Saudi war effort," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is currently a researcher at the Brookings Institution. "Two administrations basically gave the Saudis a blank check to do what they wanted. Now it will be more difficult for the Saudis to conduct air raids on Yemeni territory, targeting for example the capital. "
Several of those who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that was not made public stated that this decision was motivated at least in part by the increased air refueling capabilities of the air force. Saudi army.
"As RSAF [Royal Saudi Air Force] has reached a mature and sufficient air-to-air refueling capacity, we have informed the United States that this support is no longer a priority, "said a senior Saudi government official on Friday.
This decision is expected to have a lesser impact on United Arab Emirates air operations, a member of the coalition whose sorties are made from the other side of the Red Sea in Eritrea. The UAE government said its air operations targeted mainly al-Qaeda militants rather than Houthi rebels. The coalition launched its operations against the rebels in 2015, fearing that their rise to power would give Iran a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni forces backed by the coalition have recently announced a new offensive to seize the Houthi-controlled port city of Hodeida. Aid officials have warned that an urban battle in this region could endanger hundreds of thousands of people.
US-Saudi relations have been subject to heightened surveillance since Saudi Arabia admitted that its agents last month killed Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist. The Democrats, backed by a string of mid-term election victories in the House, also called for increased surveillance of the war.
Although US military officials continued to publicly defend the Saudi coalition's efforts to avoid civilian casualties, they privately felt stuck between the hammer and the place. US military leaders, many of whom have years of working experience in close collaboration with the allies of the Persian Gulf, consider Saudi Arabia as a key partner in counterterrorism that has dominated Pentagon operations since 2001. They also share Riyadh's concern about the reach of Iran through forces showing its support for the kingdom as it struggled with repeated attacks by missiles and others. Houthi rebel attacks.
But officials are also frustrated by the fact that they are blamed for atrocities in a conflict in which they think play a minor secondary role and that they often have a weak structuring capacity. According to the Department of Defense, US tanker activity accounts for only about one-fifth of the fueling activity of the coalition campaign in Yemen.
The decision to stop refueling comes as the Trump administration seeks to lend its support to the efforts made by the US envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to engage discussions likely to lead to a peace agreement. Griffiths is hoping to bring the Houthis together this month with representatives of the international government recognized by Yemen, but, recognizing the challenge of the negotiators, he hopes to do so by the end of the year, announced Thursday. US officials.
Critics say the Trump administration's attempt to promote a peace process is compromised by its inability to exert sufficient pressure on Saudi Arabia.
"The United States has the weight to end the conflict – but they have decided to protect a corrupt ally," senior Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said in a Washington-based opinion piece. Post.
On Friday, Senators Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) And Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.) reiterated their call for a suspension of the refueling of the United States in a war that caused the less than 10,000 dead. "We must send an unambiguous, immediate and tangible message, asking that Riyadh engage in good faith and urgent negotiations to end the civil war," legislators said in a statement. "Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate indiscriminate air strikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure that has put 14 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation."
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Eminent critic of the US involvement in the war, said that this initiative amounted to an admission of the failure of the Yemeni campaign. "Now that the war in Yemen is no longer a secret for us, it's a nightmare for national security and the humanitarian, we must do everything we can," he said. .
US military officials said their fueling program was aimed at allowing for defense missions by coalition aircraft – for example, targeting a Houthi site, from which a missile would have been launched. in Saudi Arabia – but they acknowledged that they were not following what was happening once. these planes were refueled. In March, General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Said US forces were not looking for fuel or ammunition used by US forces in the coalition that killed civilians.
Warren condemned the actions of Iranian forces related to Yemen, but said the United States should insist that Saudi Arabia be held accountable because it provides help to the kingdom. "This means we have a responsibility and we need to hold our partners and allies accountable for the use of these resources," she said.
In the past, military leaders have argued that the end of air refueling could have a dangerous effect. This spring, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to lawmakers that legislation aimed at ending military support "could increase the number of civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners in the fight against anti-terrorist and reduce our influence on the Saudis, the situation and the humanitarian crisis. "
The Trump administration also shares intelligence with coalition forces and continues to support massive arms sales, including precision-guided munitions that, according to US officials, have allowed the coalition to lead more
precise air operations. US-made ammunition has been found repeatedly at the scene of strikes targeting Yemeni civilians.
US military officials said Saudi Arabia had taken steps to improve its air operation, particularly after the 9 August strike that killed more than 40 Yemeni children.
In the last few years of the Obama administration, the US military had a bigger footprint in the coalition air command center in Saudi Arabia. But it has reduced its number of troops after a temporary ceasefire in 2016 and has since sought to stay away from targeting operations of the coalition.
The decision to end more than three years of refueling may not satisfy Congressional critics, who would like more action to limit US involvement in the war. The US military is running a separate campaign in Yemen alongside the UAE forces against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It was not clear immediately if this would be affected by the decision.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.