Yemen: Few expect ease in air strikes after Americans stop refueling for Saudi-led fighter planes

The decision by the United States to stop refueling of warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was welcomed on Saturday by Yemeni rebel officials, human rights activists and aid workers.

It also sent a strong signal, they said, about Washington's increasing anxiety about air strikes by its closest allies from the Middle East who killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.

But the interviewees said it is highly unlikely that the coalition will make the decision – unless more concrete action has been taken. Nor will it only change the trajectory of Yemen's war, they said, whether the growing humanitarian crisis, which now includes more than 14 million people on the verge of famine – more than half of the population of Yemen.

The United States, Great Britain and other Western powers continue to support the coalition with intelligence, logistical support and billions of dollars in arms, much of which is being deployed in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia claimed on Friday night that it had asked the Pentagon to stop air refueling its fighter planes because its troops were able to carry out the task themselves.

"The American decision to stop refueling coalition aircraft is significant, because it implies that the US is trying to distance itself from the devastating consequences for citizens of ill-directed air strikes," said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scientist at the University of Oxford. . "But it is not a military game changer."

Yemeni pro-government troops gather on the eastern edge of Hodeida while fighting Houthi rebels on November 9, 2018. (Stringer / AFP / Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries in the coalition are trying to drive out the rebel groups of the Shiite Houthi, which the United States and its allies claim to be backed by Iran. Tehran denies this.

The goal of the Saudi war is to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen, expelled from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2015, and to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on the Arabian peninsula.

On Saturday, Houthi Deputy Minister for Information, Fahmi Alyusufi, described the American decision as "insurance for those who oppose US involvement in aggression" by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Another political representative of Houthi rejected the stopping of refueling step by step because the United States still provides intelligence and logistical support, as well as sending US military trainers to Saudi Arabia to help with the war effort.

The movement in the US "will have an effect on the duration of their aircraft in the air, but it will not paralyze the aggression's ability to escalate the conflict," said the official, Mohammed Albukhaiti. "The siege on Yemen is an American and Western siege because such a siege exceeds the capacities of Saudi Arabia and the UAE."

The refueling of coalition aircraft in the US has long been controversial because of the large number of civilians killed as a result of coalition air strikes. The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 have died while other reputable organizations have killed more than 50,000 people since the war began more than three years ago.

The coalition's airstrikes have affected hospitals, health clinics, marriages, funerals, factories and other non-military targets. Fragments of bombs made in the US have been found at countless attack locations by human rights organizations and The Washington Post.

In August more than 40 children were killed when a coalition air attack reached their school bus with an American bomb. Saudi Arabia initially claimed that Houthi hunters were on the bus, but later retired as a result of international pressure caused by images of the bloody aftermath.

After every air strike, Yemenis often accuse the United States in the same breath of the Saudi-led coalition for their tragedies. Human rights activists have suggested that the United States may be complicit in committing war crimes in Yemen.

The growing death toll among civilians, despite the coalition's promise to be more careful in their target, caused the US refueling of American lawmakers to be ended, with the aim of limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia and US involvement in the war of Yemen.

During recent congress meetings it became clear that the Pentagon had very little control over the military activities of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. In March, Major General Joseph Votel, head of the US central command, told Congress that the US forces have not verified whether US fuel or ammunition was used in coalition operations that led to civilian deaths.

Human rights activists said Saturday that the US decision to end tank support had to wait long.

"Every step aimed at reining in the reckless air bombardment of the Saudi and UAE-led coalition of civilian areas in Yemen is a step in the right direction," said Lynn Maalouf, Director of the Middle East of Amnesty International.

But stopping refueling, she added, "does not go far enough,"

Kristine Beckerle, researcher at Yemen for Human Rights Watch, said: "The decision to stop refueling is a clear, albeit very belated, recognition of the terrible way the coalition is waging this war, and the risks that the US have taken when it comes to complicity. "

"The US and other coalition partners should seize this moment to suspend all arms sales, put an end to abuses, and demand accountability for the too many we've already seen," added Beckerle.

Stopping refueling comes when the coalition has set up a fierce offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida in the past week. Scores of air strikes have been struck in and around the city. Civilian deaths are again covered by air raids and shelling. The port is the main gateway for many food, fuel, medicine and humanitarian aid in the north of Yemen, where 80 percent of the population live.

Now that the offensive Hodeida threatens to deepen the crisis, aid workers hope that the United States will take more measures to help Yemenis.

"The US has the opportunity to continue taking steps that make a huge difference for people in Yemen," said Suze van Meegen, adviser for protection and advocacy in Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

One of those steps, she said, was "to insist on an immediate cease-fire" and to ensure that "all seaports and airports in the country are open and functional, allowing fast food, fuel and people in need of medical treatment. transport ."

With the Friday decision, more of the responsibility for preventing civilian casualties will fall to the Saudis. It remains to be seen whether the Trump government will be pressured to take more action to curb the coalition.

"Saudi Arabia framed the announcement as a victory, claiming that it has asked the US to stop refueling its aircraft because its own enhanced military professionalism means it can do this for itself now," Kendall said.

"The question now is: will this be enough to satisfy Congress that the US can not be held responsible for errant air strikes, or is it only a first step towards further action?"

Raghavan reported from Cairo.