Few expect ‘game changer’ in Saudi-led Yemen airstrikes after US ends refueling support

The decision by the United States to stop refueling warplanes of a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was welcomed by Yemeni rebel officials, human rights activists and aid workers on Saturday.

It also sent a strong signal, they said, about Washington’s increasing unease over airstrikes by its closest Middle East allies that have killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.

But those interviewed said the decision is highly unlikely to rein in the coalition — unless more concrete action was taken. Nor will it alone change the trajectory of Yemen’s war, they said, or its growing humanitarian crisis, which now includes more than 14 million people on the brink of famine — more than half of Yemen’s population.

The United States, Britain and other Western powers continue to support the coalition with intelligence, logistical support and billions of dollars in weaponry, much of it being deployed in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest nation.

Saudi Arabia on Friday night claimed that it had asked the Pentagon to stop aerial refueling its warplanes because its forces were capable of performing the task themselves.

“The U.S. decision to stop refueling coalition aircraft is significant because it implies that the U.S. is trying to distance itself from the devastating impact on civilians of poorly targeted airstrikes,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University. “But it is not a military game changer.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries in the coalition are seeking to oust Shiite Houthi rebel forces, which the United States and allies claim are backed by Iran. Tehran denies this.

The goal of the Saudi-led war is to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government, driven out of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2015, and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.

On Saturday, the Houthi deputy minister of information, Fahmi Alyusufi, described the U.S. decision as an “assurance for those opposing the American involvement in the aggression” by the Saudi-led coalition.

Another Houthi political official dismissed the refueling stoppage as incremental since the United States is still providing intelligence and logistical support, as well as sending U.S. military trainers to Saudi Arabia to help in the war effort.

The U.S. move “will have an effect on the duration of their aircrafts in the air, but it will not paralyze the aggression’s ability to escalate the conflict,” said the official, Mohammed Albukhaiti. “The siege on Yemen is a U.S. and Western siege because such a siege is beyond the capabilities of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

The U.S. refueling of coalition aircraft has long been controversial because of the large numbers of civilians that have been killed as a result of coalition airstrikes. The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 have died while other reputable organizations have tallied more than 50,000 killed since the war began more than three years ago.

Coalition airstrikes have struck hospitals, health clinics, weddings, funerals, factories and other nonmilitary targets. Fragments from U.S.-made bombs have been found at numerous attack sites by the human rights groups and The Washington Post.

In August, more than 40 children were killed when a coalition airstrike hit their school bus with a U.S.-made bomb. Saudi Arabia initially claimed that Houthi fighters were inside the bus, but later recanted following international pressure triggered by images of the bloody aftermath.

After each airstrike, Yemenis often blame the United States in the same breath of the Saudi-led coalition for their tragedies. Human rights activists have suggested that the United States could be complicit in committing war crimes in Yemen.

The mounting civilian death toll, despite promises by the coalition to be more careful in their targeting, brought increasing focus on ending the U.S. refueling from U.S. lawmakers, seeking to curb arm sales to Saudi Arabia and end U.S. involvement in Yemen’s war.

In recent congressional meetings, it became clear that the Pentagon had very little oversight over Saudi Arabia’s military activities in Yemen. In March, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress that U.S. forces did not track whether U.S. fuel or munitions had been used in coalition operations that resulted in civilian deaths.

Human rights activists on Saturday said the U.S. decision to end the refueling support was long overdue.

“Any step aimed at reining in the Saudi Arabian and UAE-led coalition’s reckless aerial bombardment of civilian areas in Yemen is a step in the right direction,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East director, Lynn Maalouf.

But the refueling stoppage, she added, “does not go far enough,”

Kristine Beckerle, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch, said “the decision to end refueling is a clear, if extremely belated, acknowledgment of the awful way the coalition has been waging this war, and the risks the U.S. has taken in when it comes to complicity.”

“The U.S. and other coalition allies should be seizing this moment to suspend all arms sales, demand an end to abuses and call for accountability for the too many we’ve already seen,” Beckerle added.

The refueling halt comes as the coalition has mounted a fierce offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida in the past week. Scores of airstrikes have struck in and around the city. Civilian casualties are once again mounting from the air assaults and shelling. The port is the main gateway for much of the food, fuel, medicines and humanitarian aid entering northern Yemen, home to 80 percent of its population.

With the offensive Hodeida now threatening to deepen the crisis, aid workers hope the United States would take more measures to help Yemenis.

“The U.S. has an opportunity to continue taking steps that make a very real difference for people in Yemen,” said Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy adviser in Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Among those steps, she said, was “pushing for an immediate cease-fire” and making sure that “all seaports and airports in the country are open and functioning, allowing for the swift transportation of food, fuel and people in need of medical treatment.”

With Friday’s decision, more of the responsibility for preventing civilian casualties will fall squarely on the Saudis. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will be pressured to take more action to rein in the coalition.

“Saudi Arabia has framed the announcement as a win, claiming that it requested the U.S. to stop refueling its aircraft because its own improved military professionalism means it can now do this for itself,” said Kendall.

“The question now is: Will this be enough to satisfy Congress that the U.S. cannot be held responsible for errant airstrikes, or is it just a first step to further measures?”

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