Sana'a, Yemen – The US decision to end the refueling of warplanes in a coalition led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen was greeted on Saturday by Yemeni rebels, human rights activists and helpers.
They also sent a strong signal about Washington's mounting disquiet about air strikes by its closest Middle East allies, which killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.
However, respondents said it was very unlikely that the decision would restrict the coalition unless concrete measures were taken. Nor would they change the trajectory of the Yemeni war or the growing humanitarian crisis that is bringing more than 14 million people to the brink of famine – more than half of the Yemeni population.
The United States, Britain and other Western powers continue to support the coalition with intelligence services, logistical support and billions of dollars of arms, much of which is used in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia claimed on Friday night that it had asked the Pentagon to stop air-handling its combat aircraft because its forces could fulfill the task itself.
"The US decision to end the refueling of coalition aircraft is significant because it suggests that the US is trying to distance itself from the devastating effects of civil strikes on civilians," said Elizabeth Kendall, a Yemeni student at Oxford University. "But it's not a military game changer."
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-Muslim countries in the coalition are trying to topple the Shiite Houthi rebels, who are supported by the United States and its Iranian allies. Tehran denies this.
The aim of the war led by Saudi Arabia is to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen, which was expelled in 2015 from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
On Saturday, Deputy Minister of Houthi, Fahmi Alyusufi, described the US decision as "a pledge to those opposing US involvement in the aggression" of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Another Houthi political representative turned down the refueling stop as the United States continued to provide intelligence and logistical support and sent US military trainers to Saudi Arabia to help with the war effort.
The US movement "will affect the airplanes for the duration of their flights, but it will not paralyze the capacity for aggression to escalate the conflict," said officer Mohammed Albukhaiti. "The siege of Yemen is a siege of the US and the West, because such a siege is beyond the capabilities of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."
The refueling of coalition aircraft in the US has long been controversial as numerous civilians have been killed as a result of coalition air strikes. The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 people have died, while other respected organizations have killed more than 50,000 people since the war began more than three years ago.
Coalition attacks have hit hospitals, hospitals, weddings, funerals, factories and other non-military targets. Fragments of US-made bombs were found at numerous sites by the human rights groups and the Washington Post.
More than 40 children were killed in August when a coalition airstrike hit the school bus with a US-made bomb. Saudi Arabia initially claimed that Houthi fighters were on the bus. Later, however, she revoked international pressure triggered by images of bloody consequences.
After each air strike, Yemenis accuse the United States in the same breath of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia for their tragedies. Human rights activists have suggested that the United States could be involved in committing war crimes in Yemen.
The growing death toll among the civilian population, despite the coalition's commitment to being more cautious in achieving its goals, was increasingly focused on ending the US replenishment of US lawmakers in order to curb the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and to end the US involvement in the Yemen war.
At the recent congressional meetings, it became clear that the Pentagon was barely aware of Saudi Arabia's military activities in Yemen. In March, Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, told Congress that US forces were not tracking whether US fuel or ammunition had been used in coalition operations that led to the deaths of civilians.
Human rights activists said on Saturday that the US decision to end refueling support was long overdue.
"Any move aimed at eliminating the flimsy air raids inflicted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on civilian areas in Yemen is a step in the right direction," said Lynn Maalouf, director of the Middle East of Amnesty International.
But the fuel stop, she added, "does not go far enough"
Kristine Beckerle, Yemen's researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "The decision to end refueling is a clear, albeit belated, acknowledgment of the terrible way in which the coalition led this war and of the risks who have entered the US if they are to blame. "
"Allies of the United States and other coalitions should use this moment to suspend all arms sales, demand the end of ill-treatment, and bring to justice those responsible for the many we have already seen," Beckerle added.
The refueling stop comes as the coalition launched a violent offensive in the Yemeni port of Hodeida last week. In and around the city numerous air raids have taken place. The number of civilian casualties is rising again due to air strikes and shelling. The port is the main gateway to much of the food, fuel, medicines, and humanitarian supplies entering northern Yemen, where 80 percent of the population lives.
The Hodeida offensive is now threatening to deepen the crisis, and relief workers hope the United States will take more action to help Yemenis.
"The US has the opportunity to take further steps that will make a real difference to the people of Yemen," said Suze van Meegen, adviser for protection and advocacy in Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
She said she had "sought an immediate ceasefire" and ensured that "all of the country's seaports and airports are open and functioning, enabling the rapid transportation of food, fuel and people in need of medical treatment."
With the decision of Friday, responsibility for the prevention of civilian casualties will fall directly on the Saudis. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will be pressured to further curb the coalition.
"Saudi Arabia has made the announcement a win, claiming that it has asked the US to stop refueling because its own military professionalism means it to itself," Kendall said.
"The question now is, will this be enough to satisfy Congress that the US can not be blamed for flawed air strikes, or is this just a first step toward further action?"
Raghavan reported from Cairo.