The Trump government ends the practice of refueling Saudi coalition aircraft and stops the most concrete and controversial aspect of US support for the three-year war of the Kingdom in Yemen.
The move takes place in the wake of escalating criticism of Saudi Arabia's wartime behavior. Legislators of both parties have demanded that the United States suspend arms sales to Riyadh and stop the refueling of planes flown by the Saudi-led coalition, accused by surveillance groups of killing thousands of unarmed civilians.
While those familiar with the discussions should announce a decision in the coming days, Colonel Robert Manning III, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We have ongoing discussions with our partners, but have nothing to report at the moment. "
Analysts said the move would limit Saudi Arabia's ability to conduct bombing missions.
"This is the first time the United States has taken a concrete move to stem the Saudi war effort," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who now works as a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Two governments have basically given the Saudis a blank check to do what they want. Now it will be more difficult for the Saudis to bring air strikes deep into Yemeni territory, for example to the capital. "
It was not immediately clear if the move was initiated by Washington or Riyadh, both of whom expect a tougher attitude by the Congress on the war. Some of the people who commented on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that has not yet been published said the movement was triggered, at least in part, by the increased air-fueling of the Saudi military.
The decision is expected to have less impact on the operations of the United Arab Emirates, a coalition member whose operations are flown directly across the Red Sea in Eritrea. The government of the United Arab Emirates said its air operations were directed primarily at al-Qaeda fighters, not at Houthi rebels. The coalition launched its operations against the rebels in 2015, fearing that their rise would take Iran to the Arabian peninsula.
The coalition-backed Yemeni forces recently announced a new offensive to conquer the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida. Auxiliary officers warn that a city battle could endanger hundreds of thousands of people.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has been scrutinized ever since Saudi Arabia admitted that its agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, last month. Democrats, who were aided by a series of electoral victories between plenary elections, also called for stronger surveillance of the war.
Although the US military officials continued to publicly defend the Saudi Arabian coalition's efforts to avert civilian casualties, in the private sphere they have expressed a sense of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. US military officials, many of whom have many years of experience in working closely with the Persian Gulf allies, see Saudi Arabia as an important partner in the fight against counter-terrorism, which has dominated the Pentagon's operations since 2001, showing support for the kingdom it deals with repeated missiles and other attacks by the Houthi rebels.
However, officials are also frustrated that they are accused of atrocities in a conflict in which they feel they have a secondary minor role and often have little control. According to the US Department of Defense, the activity of US air tankers accounts for only about one-fifth of total refueling activity for the coalition campaign over Yemen.
The decision to stop the refueling comes as the Trump administration seeks to shore up its support for the efforts of the US envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to initiate discussions that could lead to a peace agreement. Griffiths had hoped to bring the Houthis together this month with representatives of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, but in recognition of the challenge that negotiators will face, he hopes to do so by the end of the year, the US officials said Thursday With.
Critics say the Trump administration's attempt to promote a peace process is undermined by its lack of pressure on Saudi Arabia.
"The United States aims to put an end to the conflict – but they have decided to protect a corrupt ally," said Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior Houthi official, in an article in the Washington Post.
On Friday, Sens. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) And Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called for their suspension of US service stations in a war that killed at least 10,000 people.
"We must send a clear, immediate and tangible message that we expect Riyadh to end the civil war in good faith and in urgent negotiations," the legislature said in a statement. "Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continued indiscriminate air strikes on civilians and the civilian infrastructure that have helped 14 million Yemenis to the brink of hunger."
US military officials said their refueling program aims to enable defensive missions carried out by coalition aircraft, eg. For example, a location in Houthi believed to launch a rocket in Saudi Arabia. These aircraft were refueled. In March, General Joseph Votel, Chief of the US Central Command, told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) That US forces have failed to track US-American fuel or ammunition in coalition operations that led to the deaths of civilians.
Warren condemned the actions of Iran's Iranian troops, but said that the United States must insist on Saudi Arabia's accountability by providing assistance to the kingdom. "That means we have some responsibility here, and that means we have to blame our partners and allies for using those resources," she said.
In the past, military officials have argued that stopping air-to-air could be dangerous. Defense Minister Jim Mattis said in a letter to lawmakers this spring that laws enforcing the cessation of military support "increase the number of civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our counter-terrorism partners, and our impact on the Saudis could reduce the situation and the humanitarian crisis. "
The Trump government also shares intelligence with coalition forces and has continued to support massive arms sales, including precision-guided ammunition, which, according to US authorities, has enabled the coalition to conduct more accurate flight operations. US-made ammunition was repeatedly found in places of strikes against Yemeni civilians.
US military officials say Saudi Arabia has taken steps to improve operations, especially after a strike on 9 August that killed more than 40 Yemeni children.
In the last years of the Obama administration, the US military had a much stronger presence at the Air Force Command Center in Saudi Arabia. However, after a temporary ceasefire in 2016, it has reduced the number of employees and has since attempted to maintain the distance to the Coalition's goals.
The decision to end more than three years after refueling can not satisfy critics in Congress who want broader measures to curtail US involvement in the war. The US military is conducting a separate campaign in Yemen, along with the Emirates' forces against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It was not immediately clear if this decision was influenced by the decision.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.