U.S. to stop refueling Saudi coalition’s air missions in Yemen
The Trump administration is ending the practice of refueling Saudi-coalition aircraft, halting the most tangible and controversial aspect of U.S. support for the kingdom’s three-year war in Yemen, people familiar with the situation said.
The move comes amid escalating criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war. Lawmakers from both parties have demanded that the United States suspend weapons sales to Riyadh and cut off aerial refueling of aircraft flown by the Saudi-led coalition, which monitoring groups have accused of killing thousands of civilians.
While the individuals familiar with the discussions said a decision is expected to be made public in coming days, Col. Robert Manning III, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “We have ongoing discussions with our partners but have nothing to announce at this time.”
Analysts said the move would limit Saudi Arabia’s ability to conduct bombing missions.
“This marks the first time that the United States has taken a concrete measure to rein in the Saudi war effort,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Two administrations have basically given the Saudis a blank check to do whatever they wanted. Now it will be harder for the Saudis to carry out airstrikes deep into Yemeni territory, going after the capital, for instance.”
Several of the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that had not been made public, said the move was prompted at least in part by the Saudi military’s increased aerial refueling capability.
“As the RSAF [Royal Saudi Air Force] has reached a mature and sufficient aerial refueling capacity, we informed the U.S. that this support was no longer a priority,” a senior Saudi government official said Friday.
The decision is expected to have a lesser effect on the air operations of the United Arab Emirates, a coalition member whose sorties are flown from just across the Red Sea in Eritrea. The UAE government has said its air operations primarily target al-Qaeda militants rather than Houthi rebels. The coalition launched its operations against the rebels in 2015 because it feared their rise would give Iran a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under closer scrutiny since Saudi Arabia acknowledged that its agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, last month. Democrats, bolstered by a string of midterm election victories in the House, have also called for greater oversight of the war.
Though U.S. military officials have continued to publicly defend the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to avert civilian casualties, privately they have expressed a feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. U.S. military leaders, many of whom have years of experience working closely with Persian Gulf allies, see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the counterterrorism fight that has dominated Pentagon operations since 2001. They also share Riyadh’s concern about Iran’s reach through proxy forces and want to show support for the kingdom as it grapples with repeated missile and other attacks from the Houthi rebels.
But the officials are also frustrated that they are blamed for atrocities in a conflict in which they believe they have a minor supporting role and which they often have little ability to shape. U.S. air tanker activity represents only about a fifth of overall refueling activity for the coalition’s campaign over Yemen, according to the Defense Department.
The decision to halt refueling occurs as the Trump administration seeks to throw its support behind efforts by the U.N. envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to initiate discussions that might lead to a peace deal. Griffiths had hoped to bring the Houthis together with representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognized government this month but, in an acknowledgment of the challenge negotiators will face, he now hopes to do so by the end of the year, U.N. officials said Thursday.
Critics say the Trump administration’s attempt to foster a peace process is undermined by its failure to exert adequate pressure on Saudi Arabia.
On Friday, Sens. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) renewed their calls for a suspension of U.S. refueling in a war that has killed at least 10,000 people. “We must send an unambiguous, immediate, and tangible message that we expect Riyadh to engage in good faith and urgent negotiations to end the civil war,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continued indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure that have helped put 14 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation.”
U.S. military officials have said their refueling program seeks to enable defensive missions conducted by coalition planes — targeting a Houthi site, for example, from which a missile is thought to have been launched into Saudi Arabia — but acknowledge that they do not track what occurs once those planes have been refueled.
The Trump administration also shares intelligence with coalition forces and has continued to support massive arms sales, including precision-guided munitions that U.S. officials have argued enable the coalition to conduct moreprecise air operations. U.S.-manufactured munitions have been found repeatedly at the sites of strikes on Yemeni civilians.