U.S. to stop re­fu­el­ing Saudi coali­tion’s air mis­sions in Ye­men

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY JOHN HUD­SON AND MISSY RYAN john.hud­son@wash­post.com missy.ryan@wash­post.com Karen DeYoung con­tributed to this re­port.

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.

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