Saudi Arabia has “requested a cessation of inflight refueling support” from the US, saying the Saudi air force can now do it independently.
By Josh Babb
Rabat – The move comes amid continued bipartisan anger by US lawmakers over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October, which has also increased scrutiny over American support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s bloody civil war.
Both the Saudi announcement, which came from the state-run Saudi Press Agency on Saturday, and US comments suggested Riyadh was the initial force that led to the decision.
The Saudi-led coalition has been an active participant in the Yemen conflict since March 2015, when Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), who was Riyadh’s defence minister at the time, announced military action. The Saudi coalition intervened to fight the Houthi rebels on behalf of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen.
Both the Saudis and US intelligence say the Houthi rebels are backed by the Iranian government, a claim which Tehran denies. The US and other Western nations have supported the coalition through the duration of the war with intelligence and logistical support, in-flight refueling, and billions of dollars in weapon sales.
In a statement, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said he supported the Saudi decision to end US refueling support, adding “The U.S. will also continue working with the coalition and Yemen to minimize civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts throughout the country.”
Although human rights organizations and aid workers applauded the decision, there are doubts weather it will have a significant impact on Saudi Arabia’s ability to conduct airstrikes. It is reported that before the announcement Riyadh was already refueling its own aircraft 80 percent of the time.
American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen has long been controversial due to the high number of civilian casualties the airstrikes have caused, with the UN estimating at least 10,000 civilians dead. Other reputable organizations have placed the tally as high as 56,000.
Coalition airstrikes have hit hospitals, wedding parties, health clinics and funerals among other non-military targets. Last August one such strike killed more than 40 schoolchildren on a bus, the bomb was US made. “After each airstrike, Yemenis often blame the United States in the same breath as the Saudi-led coalition for the tragedies.”
In addition to the airstrike campaign, the Saudis have led an air, land, and sea blockade of Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, which has been ongoing since 2015. The blockade has had a devastating effect on Yemeni civilians, with the UN reporting 14 million people, more than half the country’s population, was at risk of famine, along with dangerous outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.
In October Mattis announced the US would participate in peace talks between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition in Sweden later this year, which would be sponsored by the UN as well. Previous negotiation attempts, spearheaded by the UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, between the two sides fell through last September, when the Houthis backed out claiming they had not been guaranteed safe return.