The US will no longer refuel Saudi aircraft conducting strike missions over Yemen, US and Saudi officials said Friday.
The move is expected to have minimal impact on the Saudi effort because the US was only providing refueling for some 20% of Saudi aircraft.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen issued a statement on Friday confirming the decision, saying the cessation of aerial refueling was made at the request of the coalition due to improvements in their own refueling capabilities.
“Recently the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) 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 its operations in Yemen,” the statement said.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis also confirmed the decision in a statement issued later on Friday.
“We support the decision by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after consultations with the US Government, to use the Coalition’s own military capabilities to conduct inflight refueling in support of its operations in Yemen,” Mattis said.
He said that the US and the Saudis were “focused on supporting resolution of the conflict, led by UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths” and that “the US 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.”
While the refueling has not stopped yet, the Pentagon and Saudis are going to announce it together to head off pending legislation, a diplomatic source confirms to CNN.
The Washington Post was first to report the plan to stop the aerial refueling.
The Trump administration has been criticized by humanitarian groups and some members of Congress for its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen and for the administration’s recent finding that the coalition was doing enough to avoid civilian casualties.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a frequent critic of U.S. involvement in Yemen and of Saudi policies, said that the refueling decision was ‘long overdue’, and that the U.S. should stop selling bombs to the Saudis and assisting them in targeting. “Time to get ALL THE WAY OUT” he tweeted.
In addition to aerial refueling, the US military provides the Saudi coalition with training meant to help minimize civilian casualties as well as with intelligence to help guard against Houthi cross-border missile and drone attacks.
Mattis confirmed in his statement that those support activities would go on, saying the US will “continue working with the Coalition and Yemen to minimize civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts throughout the country.”