Trump’s One Step Back on Yemen Won’t Satisfy Critics
The U.S. will end refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war.
The Trump administration’s decision last week to stop refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft engaged in the Yemen civil war fell well short of a bipartisan view in Washington that the United States should end all support for the war and press for a cease-fire.
The U.S. Defense Department and Saudi Arabia made the announcement late Friday, ending one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. involvement in a conflict that has stoked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
But President Donald Trump is not ending other U.S. support of the campaign—including intelligence assistance and arms sales—despite recent tensions over the civilian casualties in Yemen and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government said in a statement that its coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, had “increased its capability to independently conduct in-flight refueling,” and had therefore requested an end to the U.S. refueling support.
The U.S. Air Force currently provides roughly 20 percent of the aerial refueling for aircraft engaged in the campaign, according to the Defense Department. The U.S. government will continue to advise Saudi and coalition troops in the fight and provide U.S.-made weapons such as precision-guided munitions.
The Saudi-led bombings have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed portions of the country’s economic infrastructure, helping push millions to the brink of starvation.
Humanitarian aid groups and a growing number of U.S. lawmakers—including some Republicans—have criticized Washington’s role in the war.
“We must send an unambiguous, immediate, and tangible message that we expect Riyadh to engage in good faith and urgent negotiations to end the civil war,” wrote Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, and Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, in a joint statement Friday. “Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continued indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure that have helped put 14 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation.”
The critics also include Democrats Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who believe Khashoggi’s killing last month helped shift the tide in Washington away from the alliance with Riyadh, at least on the issue of the war in Yemen. Murphy, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, introduced bipartisan legislation earlier this year to end support for the war, which was ultimately tabled by the Senate.
The move to end aerial refueling could be a sign that Trump is reading that shift. But at least publicly, the administration was careful not to imply that the move was in any way a repudiation of Saudi Arabia or its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Indeed, two days after the announcement, more than two dozen senior Obama administration officials, including former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former CIA Director John Brennan, called on the Trump administration to do more. The officials acknowledged their own responsibility for initiating U.S. involvement in the civil war in 2015 but said they did not intend for that support to “become a blank check.”
“We welcome Secretary Mattis’ announcement that the United States will no longer conduct in-flight refueling for the coalition as well as recent statements calling for a reduction in violence and backing the Special Envoy’s efforts,” the officials wrote. “But they should be accompanied by more comprehensive action, namely a suspension of all U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen, a clear demand for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, and increased U.S. investment in the high-level diplomacy needed to end this war.”
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed his support for the Saudi government’s decision to use the coalition’s own military capabilities to conduct in-flight refueling. The United States will continue working with the coalition and with Yemen to “minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian efforts,” he said in a statement.
The United States and the Saudi-led coalition are also 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,” Mattis said.
Both Mattis and the Saudi government reiterated support for the United Nations-brokered peace process, which has recently stalled.
Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Oct. 30 called for a cease-fire within 30 days and for the Saudis to stop bombing targets in areas with civilians. But the coalition appeared to ignore the requests, making a new push to take back from the Houthi rebels the strategic port of Hodeidah, the main gateway for much of the food, fuel, medicines, and humanitarian aid entering northern Yemen.
The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is reportedly now aiming to convene the warring parties for peace talks by the end of the year instead of by the end of November.
In the meantime, the U.S. military will continue advising and training Saudi-led coalition troops as it has done for the entirety of the three-year Yemen war. The Defense Department says this role is intended to improve operational effectiveness and mitigate civilian casualties.
Defense Department spokesperson Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich said the U.S. advisory team does not participate in target selections, validation, strike approval, or civilian casualties investigations, nor does it have the ability to continuously monitor coalition operations.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @laraseligman