The decision to halt refueling warplanes from Saudi Arabia and its allies bombing rebels in Yemen was hailed Friday by Democrats and other longtime supporters of curtailing the Pentagon’s support for what they consider an unlawful use of American forces that has contributed to a humanitarian disaster.
But they also called on President Donald Trump and members of Congress to take additional steps — including cutting off arms and ending the sharing of targeting information — to further extricate the U.S. military from involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
Late Friday , Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis confirmed the decision in a statement saying “we support the decision by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after consultations with the U.S. Government, to use the Coalition’s own military capabilities to conduct inflight refueling in support of its operations in Yemen.”
The move, first reported by the Washington Post, was hailed as a positive step by those who have been urging the Trump administration to cut off the Saudis and its allies in the conflict, including the United Arab Emirates.
“By finally ending refueling missions for Saudi bombers, the Trump administration is admitting our joint operation in Yemen has been a disaster,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Also calling the move “a major victory,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a vocal advocate of barring U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition, said Congress must also pass a resolution that would “ensure that all U.S. involvement is shut off.”
The Saudi government issued its own statement insisting it had requested the halt to refueling operations now that it has developed the ability to resupply its fighter jets on its own.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the member countries of the Coalition to Support legitimacy in Yemen, continually pursue improvements to military professionalism and self-sufficiency,” the statement said. “Recently the Kingdom and the Coalition has increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen. As a result, in consultation with the United States, the Coalition has requested cessation of inflight refueling support for it’s operations in Yemen.”
Since 2015, U.S Air Force aerial tankers have provided mid-air refueling to some of the Saudi-led coalition’s strike aircraft attacking Houthi rebels in Yemen that are backed by Iran.
Some of those strikes have been blamed for deaths of civilians, including a highly publicized bombing of a bus over the summer.
“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government continued to bomb civilian infrastructure and carried out indiscriminate attacks, killing and injuring civilians,” Amnesty International said in a recent report.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also reported thousands of civilians have died in the conflict and millions have been displaced. It has also fueled the spread of cholera and other diseases due to the destruction of what was already a very poor infrastructure.
The Pentagon previously maintained that by providing refueling and providing intelligence support it was helping to ensure the strikes were more precise and that civilian deaths were being kept to a minimum.
Mattis said in August that the U.S. military support was “not unconditional” but also insisted that the Saudi military was taking proper precautions and following new procedures after undergoing American training.
“The training we have given them we know has paid off,” Mattis told reporters. “We have had pilots in the air who recognize the danger of a specific mission and declined to drop even when they get the authority. We have seen staff procedures that put no-fire areas around areas where there’s hospitals or schools.”
Last week Mattis also called for a ceasefire to enter effect this month, saying that “the Saudis and the Emiratis are ready” and blaming the Houthis for the failure of past negotiations.
Some experts suggested Friday that the Trump administration is also trying to head off growing criticism over its cozy relationship with the Saudi monarchy and expectations that a new Democratic majority in the House in January could force its hand.
The broader U.S.-Saudi relationship has also come under more fire since the alleged murder last month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Critics in Congress have called for the White House to pull the plug on a $110 billion deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s being done as part of the administration’s effort to get ahead of congressional action against Saudi arms sales and other operational support,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has consulted with the Saudi-led coalition in its campaign in Yemen against both a Houthi insurgency and militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“It’s clear the administration decided to end refueling because it saw the writing on the wall and wanted to save face before Congress could vote to cut off U.S. support to the coalition,” added Kate Kiszer, director of the progressive foreign policy advocacy group Win Without War.
The practical effect of the new move is likely to be limited. The United States has only provided some 10 percent of refueling support to the air campaign, according to Knights.
It could still reduce civilian casualties, however.
“Removal of that support will not end the war,” he explained, “but it might make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to station aircraft over the Yemeni capital.”
That’s the part of the country, he noted, where the Saudis have undertaken some of their most questionable strikes, including against rebels on the move.
The decision was seen by many critics of the U.S. role to date as a significant turning point.
“For years, the United States has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and offered targeting and refueling assistance as American-made bombs were sent to kill thousands of innocent people, including children,” Murphy said in his statement. “The U.S. has radicalized entire generations because there was an American imprint on every civilian murdered there.”
More needs to be done, he insisted. “Why are we still helping the Saudis with targeting?” he asked. “Why are we still selling them the bombs at a discount?
Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action, an anti-war group, also credited the Trump administration for taking action but expressed hope it will lead to fully extricating the United States from the conflict if a peaceful settlement cannot be reached.
“This is an important step, but it is not the end of the struggle to end U.S. support for the war and to end the war itself,” he said in a statement.
Like others he called on Congress to play a more active role.
“Congress must pass the Yemen war powers resolutions to bind the administration to this policy shift, to end other forms of U.S. support for the war, and to reclaim its constitutional authority on the question of war,” Martin said. “This war was illegal from the start, and it’s time for Congress to stand up and say so.”
Defense Priorities, a think tank funded by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation that advocates a less interventionist foreign policy, also took a swipe at President Barack Obama for supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in the first place.
“U.S. military support for this conflict is something President Obama should have never started,” said Benjamin Friedman, a senior scholar at Defense Priorities. The campaign “is a humanitarian disaster that does nothing to advance U.S. security—if anything it undermines it.”
He, too, said the halt to American refueling of Saudi jets should only be the beginning.
“The United States should end the other forms of intelligence and logistical support provided to the Saudis, including the arms sales aiding their bombing campaign,” Friedman said.
Mattis, in his statement Friday, reiterated the need to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
“We are all focused on supporting resolution of the conflict,” he said. “The U.S. and the Coalition are planning to collaborate on building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people, secure their country’s borders, and contribute to counter Al Qaeda and ISIS efforts in Yemen and the region.”
“The U.S. will also continue working with the Coalition and Yemen to minimize civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts throughout the country,” Mattis added, calling on all parties to “support the United Nations’ ongoing efforts on this new phase in Yemen.”
The Saudi government insisted Friday it is seeking the same outcome, via a new attempt to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which was adopted in 2015. That effort to end the conflict peacefully has so far failed to yield results.
“The Coalition Command expresses its hope,” the Saudi statement said, “that the upcoming UN sponsored negotiations in a third country will lead to a negotiated settlement in accordance to UNSCR 2216 and see an end to the aggression by the Iranian backed Houthi militias’ against the Yemeni people and countries in the region.”