SANAA, Yemen – The US decision to stop supplying warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was welcomed by Yemeni rebel officials, human rights activists and humanitarian workers on Saturday.
He also sent a strong signal, they said, about Washington's growing discomfort with air strikes by its closest Middle Eastern allies who killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.
But those interviewed said the decision is unlikely to curb the coalition – unless more decisive action is taken. Nor will it change alone the trajectory of the war in Yemen, they said, or its growing humanitarian crisis, which now includes over 14 million people on the edge of famine – more than half of the Yemen population.
The United States, Britain, and other Western powers continue to assist the coalition with intelligence, logistical support, and billions of dollars in armaments, many of them used in the conflict in Yemen, the poorest nation in the world. Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, on Friday night, claimed to have asked the Pentagon to stop refueling its planes because its forces were able to carry out the task themselves.
"The US decision to stop supplying coalition aircraft is significant because it implies that the US is trying to distance itself from the devastating impact on civilians of poorly targeted air strikes," said Elisabeth Kendall, a scholar of Yemen at the University of Oxford. "But it's not a military turning point".
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries in the coalition are trying to unseat the Houthi Shiite rebel forces, which the US and its allies claim are backed by Iran. Tehran denies this.
The goal of the Saudi-led campaign is to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government, which was driven out of Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2015, and to prevent Iran from gaining ground on the Arabian Peninsula.
On Saturday, Houthi's deputy information minister, Fahmi al-Yusufi, described the US decision as "a guarantee for those who oppose US involvement in aggression" by the Saudi-led coalition .
Another Houthi political official rejected incremental refueling because the United States continues to provide intelligence and other logistical support, as well as sending US military trainers to Saudi Arabia to contribute to the war effort.
The US move "will have an effect on the duration of their aircraft in flight, but it will not paralyze the ability of aggression to intensify the conflict," said official Mohammed Albukhaiti. "The siege of Yemen is an American and Western siege because such a siege goes beyond the capabilities of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."
The US supply of coalition aircraft has long been controversial because of the large number of civilians killed during the coalition airstrikes. The UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have died, but other reputable organizations have made more than 50,000 deaths since the war more than three years ago.
Coalition air raids hit hospitals, clinics, weddings, funerals, factories, and other non-military targets. Human rights groups and The Washington Post observed fragments of ammunition produced by the United States in numerous attack sites.
In August, more than 40 children were killed when an American bomb hit their school bus during a coalition bombing. Saudi Arabia initially claimed that Houthi fighters were on the bus but withdrew from international pressure triggered by images of bloody consequences.
After each air strike, the Yemenis often blame the United States in the same breath as the Saudi-led coalition for tragedies. Human rights activists have suggested that the United States could be complicit in war crimes in Yemen.
The growing number of civilian victims, despite promises from the coalition to be more cautious in betting, has increased the attention on the cessation of US refueling by US lawmakers who are trying to curb arms sales in Saudi Arabia and pose end to the United States involvement in the Yemen war.
In the recent Congressional hearings, it became clear that the Pentagon had little oversight of Saudi Arabia's military activities in Yemen. In March, Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, told Congress that US forces did not trace whether US fuel or ammunition was used in coalition operations that caused death of civilians.
Saturday's human rights activists said that the US decision to end support supply was long overdue.
"Any step to curb the reckless air raids of the Saudi coalition and the United Arab Emirates in the civilian areas of Yemen is a step in the right direction," said Amnesty International's director of Middle East research, Lynn Maalouf.
But the interruption of supply, he added, "does not go far enough"
Kristine Beckerle, Yemen's researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: "the decision to end the refueling is a clear, albeit extremely late, recognition of the terrible way the coalition has waged this war, and of the risks that the US they took when it comes to complicity. "
"The US and other coalition allies should seize this moment to suspend all arms sales, call for an end to the abuses and demand responsibility for the many we have seen," added Beckerle.
The disruption of refueling takes place while the coalition has mounted a fierce offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida last week. Scores of air strikes hit in and around the city. Civilian victims are again rising between air strikes and bombings. The port is the main gate for most of the food, fuel, medicines and humanitarian aid entering northern Yemen, where 80% of the country's population lives.
With the Hodeida offensive threatening to deepen the crisis, humanitarian workers hope the United States will go further to help Yemenis.
"The United States has the opportunity to continue taking steps that really make a difference for people in Yemen," said Suze van Meegen, defense and defense advisor to Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Among them, he said, "pushing for an immediate ceasefire" and making sure that "all ports and airports in the country are open and functioning, allowing the rapid transport of food, fuel and people in need of medical care".
With the decision of Friday, greater responsibility for the prevention of civilian casualties will fall directly on the Saudis. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will be forced to do more to control the coalition.
"Saudi Arabia has framed the announcement as a victory, claiming it has asked the US to stop refueling its planes because its improved military professionalism means it can now do it by itself," Kendall said.
"The question now is: will it be enough to satisfy the Congress that the United States can not be held responsible for wrong air strikes, or is it just a first step for further measures?"
Raghavan reported from Cairo.