The Trump government stops 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, people familiar with the situation said.
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 airplanes flown by the Saudi coalition accused by surveillance groups of the deaths of thousands of unarmed civilians.
While those familiar with the discussions should announce a ruling in the coming days, Colonel Robert Manning III, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We have continued discussions with our partners, but have yet to announce anything at this time to give. "
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 and scholar of 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.
It is not expected that the decision by the United Arab Emirates, a member of the coalition flying directly over the Red Sea in Eritrea, will have a significant impact on operations, and notably on al-Qaeda militants aimed at the Houthi rebels.
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been under scrutiny since Saudi Arabia's recognition that a prominent Saudi journalist was killed by Saudi agents last month. Democrats, who were strengthened by a series of interim successes in the house, also called for stronger surveillance of the war.
While military officials continued to publicly defend the efforts of the Saudi Arabian coalition to avert civilian casualties, they expressed a sense of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Military leaders, many of whom have years of experience with close allies in the Gulf, see Saudi Arabia as an important partner in the fight against terrorism, which has dominated Pentagon operations since 2001. They also share Riyadh's concerns about the Iranian reach of proxies and want to show support for the kingdom as it has to deal 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 believe they play a minor role and often have little formability. According to the defense agency, US tanker activity accounts for only about one-fifth of all refueling activity in the coalition campaign for 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 with representatives of the internationally recognized government of Yemen this month, but in recognition of the challenge faced by the negotiators, it is hoped to do so by the end of the year, US officials said Thursday.
Critics said the government's attempt to promote a peace process would be undermined by the 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, Senator Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) And Senator Jeanne Shaheen (d. H.) renewed the call to suspend refueling 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," said the legislature. "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 will allow defense missions carried out by coalition aircraft. For example, a Huthi site fired a rocket in Saudi Arabia. However, he acknowledges that what happens once is not tracked. In March, General Joseph Votel, chief of the US Central Command, told Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) That US forces had not tracked down coalition operations US fuel or ammunition were used, which would have led to civilian deaths.
Warren condemned the actions of Iran's Iranian troops, but said that the United States must insist on Saudi Arabia's accountability, as they provide the help of the kingdom. "It means that we have some responsibility here and that our partners and our allies must be held accountable for using those resources," she said.
In the past, military officials have argued that an end to the refueling could have dangerous consequences. Defense Minister Jim Mattis said in a letter to legislators this spring that laws enforcing the ending of military support "increase the number of civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our counter-terrorism partners and reduce our influence on the Saudis could be the situation and the humanitarian crisis, "he wrote.
The US government also shares intelligence with the coalition forces and has continued to facilitate massive arms sales, including precision-guided ammunition, which, according to the US officials, could enable the coalition to conduct more accurate flight operations. US-made ammunition was repeatedly found in strikes on Yemeni civilians.
US military officials say Saudi Arabia has taken steps to improve operations, especially following 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 people employed and has since attempted to distance itself from the Coalition's goals.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.