The United States could soon halt refuelling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen, two US officials told news agency Reuters on Friday, a move that would end one of the most divisive aspects of US assistance to the Saudi war effort.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged an end to US in-air refuelling was under consideration by both countries and could be at least in part a result of Saudi Arabia’s ability to handle its own refuelling.
It was not immediately clear what had prompted the change, which comes at a time of international outrage over the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and after Democratic and Republican lawmakers threatened to take action in Congress next week over the refuelling operations.
But critics – including Democrats who won control of the House of Representatives in elections on Tuesday – have long questioned U.S. involvement in the war, which has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and led to widespread famine in Yemen since it began in 2015.
“I’ve been calling for this for over three years,” said Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California.
“We shouldn’t be supporting coalition war crimes and I look forward to continuing to scrutinize the US’s role in Yemen when we’re in the majority next Congress.”
Even as President Donald Trump’s administration has condemned Kashoggi’s murder, the White House has sought to preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia. A coordinated decision to halt to refuelling could be an attempt by both countries to forestall further action by Congress.
Senators Todd Young, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, warned the Trump administration was running out of time to act.
“If the administration does not take immediate steps… we are prepared to take additional action when the Senate comes back into session,” Young and Shaheen said.
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The Pentagon, State Department and White House declined to comment.
“We continue to have discussions with the Saudis. We have nothing to report at this time,” Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Rebecca Rebarich said.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended US military support to Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, when lawmakers weighed forcing the Pentagon to end Washington’s involvement in the conflict.
Mattis argued that halting US military support could increase civilian casualties, since US refuelling had given pilots more time to select their targets. He told them cutting off support could jeopardise cooperation on counter-terrorism and reduce American influence with Saudi Arabia.
Mattis had also argued it would embolden the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who have fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and targeted commercial and military vessels off Yemen’s coast.
A halt to refuelling could have little practical effect on the war, however. US officials told Reuters that only a fifth of Saudi-led coalition aircraft require in-air refuelling from the United States. That raises questions about whether Saudi Arabia might be able to satisfy its refuelling needs by itself.
In recent weeks, Mattis has appeared to voice a growing sense of urgency toward ending conflict.
At the end of October, Mattis joined US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in calling for a ceasefire in Yemen. Mattis said: “We’ve admired this problem for long enough down there.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)