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Trump administration to end refueling for Saudi coalition aircraft in Yemen

A Yemeni man inspects a destroyed petrol station after it was targeted by Saudi-led airstrikes on the outskirts of Sanaa in May 2018.

HANI AL-ANSI, DPA/ZUMA PRESS/TNS

By JOHN HUDSON AND MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: November 9, 2018

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 coalition, which monitoring groups have accused of killing thousands of unarmed 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 and 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."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the move was initiated by Washington or Riyadh, both of which are anticipating a tougher congressional stance on the war. 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.

The decision is not expected to have a significant effect on air operations by the United Arab Emirates, a member of the coalition, which are flown from just across the Red Sea in Eritrea and primarily target al-Qaeda militants rather than the Houthi rebels.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under closer scrutiny since Saudi Arabia's acknowledgment that a prominent Saudi journalist was killed by Saudi agents last month. Democrats, bolstered by a string of midterm victories in the House, have also called for greater oversight of the war.

While 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. Military leaders, many of whom have years of experience working closely with 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 often little ability to shape. U.S. 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 a recognition of the challenge negotiators will face, now hopes to do so by the end of the year, U.N. officials said Thursday.

Critics have said the administration's attempt to foster a peace process is undermined by its failure to exert adequate pressure on Saudi Arabia.

"The United States has the clout to bring an end to the conflict - but it has decided to protect a corrupt ally," Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior Houthi official, said in an opinion article in The Washington Post.

On Friday, Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., renewed their calls to suspend the 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. "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, that is believed to have launched a missile into Saudi Arabia - but acknowledge they do not track what occurs once those planes are refueled. In March, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that U.S. forces did not track whether U.S. fuel or munitions had been used in coalition operations that resulted in civilian deaths.

Warren condemned the actions of Iranian-linked forces in Yemen but said the United States must insist on accountability from Saudi Arabia because it provides the kingdom aid. "That means we bear some responsibility here and that means we need to hold our partners and our allies responsible for how those resources are used," she said.

In the past, military leaders have argued that an end to aerial refueling could have a dangerous effect. This spring, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to lawmakers that legislation seeking to force an end to military support "could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis - all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis," he wrote.

The U.S. government also shares intelligence with coalition forces and has continued to facilitate massive arms sales, including of precision-guided munitions that U.S. officials have argued enable the coalition to conduct more precise air operations. U.S.-manufactured munitions have been found repeatedly at the site of strikes on Yemeni civilians.

U.S. military officials say Saudi Arabia has taken steps to improve its air operation, particularly in the wake of an Aug. 9 strike that killed more than 40 Yemeni children.

During the final years of the Obama administration, the U.S. military had a more substantial footprint in the coalition air command center in Saudi Arabia. But it reduced the number of personnel there following a temporary cease fire in 2016 and since then has sought to maintain its distance from coalition targeting operations.

The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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