The Trump administration is putting an end to the supply of Saudi coalition aircraft, stopping the most tangible and controversial aspect of US support for the triennial war of the kingdom in Yemen, people familiar with the situation .
The move comes between the escalation of criticism of the conduct of Saudi Arabia in the war. Lawmakers on both sides have demanded that the United States suspend arms sales in Riyadh and stop air refueling of planes flown by the Saudi coalition, which monitoring groups have accused of killing thousands of unarmed civilians.
While people familiar with the discussions have said that a decision should be made public in the coming days, Col. Robert Manning III, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We have ongoing discussions with our partners, but we have not nothing to announce right now. "
Analysts said the move would limit Saudi Arabia's ability to conduct bombing missions.
"This marks the first time the United States has taken a concrete step to curb the Saudi war effort," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a Brookings Institution scholar. "Two administrations basically gave the Saudis a blank check to do what they wanted, and it will now be more difficult for the Saudis to carry out air strikes deep in the Yemeni territory, looking for the capital, for example."
It was not immediately clear whether the move was initiated by Washington or Riyadh, both of which are anticipating a harsher Congress position on the war. Many of the individuals, who spoke about the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that had not been made public, said the move was motivated at least in part by the increased air supply capacity of the Saudi armed forces.
The decision is not expected to have a significant effect on the air operations of the United Arab Emirates, members of the coalition, which have just flown over the Red Sea in Eritrea and have mainly targeted al-Qaeda militants rather than the Houthi rebels .
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been subjected to close scrutiny since last month Saudi Arabia recognized that a prominent Saudi journalist was killed by Saudi agents. The Democrats, supported by a series of half-term victories in the House, have also called for greater supervision of the war.
While military officials continued to publicly defend the Saudi-led coalition efforts to avoid civilian casualties, they privately expressed the feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Military leaders, many of whom have years of experience in close contact with the Gulf allies, see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the fight against terrorism that has dominated the operations of the Pentagon since 2001. They also share the concern of Riyadh to the reach of Iran through the proxy forces and want to show support for the kingdom as it grapples with repeated missiles and other attacks by Houthi rebels.
But officials are also frustrated by the fact that they are accused of atrocities in a conflict in which they believe they have a secondary secondary role and often little ability to model. The US oil company's operations represent only about a fifth of the global supply activity for the coalition campaign on Yemen, according to the Department of Defense.
The decision to stop the refueling occurs when the Trump administration tries to support the efforts of the British envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to initiate discussions that could lead to a peace deal. Griffiths hoped to bring the Houthi along with representatives of the internationally recognized government of Yemen this month but, in recognition of the challenge that negotiators will have to face, he now hopes to do so by the end of the year, U.N. officials said.
Critics said the administration's attempt to promote a peace process is undermined by its inability to exert adequate pressure on Saudi Arabia.
"The United States has the power to end the conflict – but it has decided to protect a corrupt ally," said Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior Houthi official, in a Washington Post article.
On Friday, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) And Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) Renewed their call to suspend refueling in a war that killed at least 10,000 people.
"We have to send an unequivocal, immediate and tangible message that we expect Riyadh to commit itself in good faith and in urgent negotiations to end the civil war," the legislators said. "Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continuous indiscriminate air strikes against civilians and civil infrastructures that have helped put 14 million Yemenis on the edge of hunger".
US military officials said their refueling program aims to allow defensive missions by coalition airplanes – targeting a Houthi site, believed to have fired a missile in Saudi Arabia – but they acknowledge they do not keep track of what it happens once these planes are refueling. In March, General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) That US forces did not monitor whether US fuel or ammunition had been used in coalition operations that they have caused civilian deaths.
Warren condemned the actions of Iranian liaison forces in Yemen, but said the United States must insist on the responsibility of Saudi Arabia for providing the kingdom's aid. "This means that we take responsibility here and that means we need to keep our partners and allies responsible for how those resources are used," he said.
In the past, military leaders have claimed that the end of air refueling could have a dangerous effect. This spring, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to lawmakers that legislation seeking to end military support "could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our counter-terrorism partners and reduce our influence with the Saudis – all this would further exacerbate the situation and the humanitarian crisis, "he wrote.
The US government also shares intelligence with coalition forces and has continued to facilitate massive arms sales, including precision-guided ammunition that US officials have supported allow the coalition to conduct air operations more precise. Ammunition produced in the United States has been repeatedly found on the site of strikes on Yemeni civilians.
US military officials say that Saudi Arabia has taken measures to improve its air operations, particularly in the wake of the August 9 strike that killed more than 40 Yemeni children.
During the last years of the Obama administration, the US military had a larger footprint in the coalition command center of the coalition in Saudi Arabia. But in 2016 he reduced the number of staff following a temporary ceasefire and has since tried to keep his distance from coalition targeting operations.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this relationship.