In a significant development, the White House is preparing to halt the U.S. refueling of Saudi coalition jets engaged in operations over Yemen. It's been among the more controversial measures of assistance the Pentagon has provided the Saudis and Emirates during three years of aerial operations over Yemen, which has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, including a massive number of civilian casualties.
The New York Times reports that the "limited punishment" is to be accompanied by proposed sanctions on Riyadh over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi:
The Trump administration is ending air refueling flights for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen and preparing sanctions against Saudis linked to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, current and former American officials said on Friday. The moves would impose a limited punishment on the kingdom.
But ironically even the Times is aware of the PR and propaganda nature of the move, as it comes after the mainstream media has finally (after over three years) "discovered" Yemen and after the U.N. dubbed it the world's worst humanitarian crisis. It also comes after Turkey revealed on Saturday that the US, Germany, France and the UK have the Khashoggi audio death tapes in their possession.
Reports the Times:
The steps appear calibrated to respond to international outrage over the death of Mr. Khashoggi and to thousands of civilian deaths in the Yemen war, but avoid directly punishing the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and could head off tougher congressional action.
So really the move is much more symbolic without much teeth, and could actually serve the purpose of softening future punitive congressional action against the kingdom.
According to various reports based on anonymous government sources, the White House is expected to make an official announcement of the change in Pentagon cooperation with the Saudi coalition in Yemen in the coming days. But lending credence to the idea that this is really all about "appearing" to get tough while in reality doing nothing against one of America's closest Middle East partners, Reuters reports based on two government sources that the decision was taken in part due to Saudi Arabia’s already self-sustaining refueling capabilities.
The Saudi-UAE-US coalition itself confirmed this in a statement announcing the cessation of the refueling efforts:
Recently, the Kingdom and the Coalition increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen. As a result, in consultation with the United States, the Coalition has requested the cessation of inflight refueling support for its operations in Yemen.
Thus this is confirmed PR damage control coming out of the coalition at a moment when increasingly both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have called on the US role in the Yemen war to cease.
Yet the Washington Post, relying on on a former CIA officer still spun the decision as follows: “This marks the first time that the United States has taken a concrete measure to rein in the Saudi war effort,” former career CIA officer Bruce Riedel and Brookings Institution scholar said.
“Two administrations have basically given the Saudis a blank check to do whatever they wanted. Now it will be harder for the Saudis to carry out airstrikes deep into Yemeni territory, going after the capital for instance,” Riedel added.
Currently a resolution is before Congress with the backing of a small but growing group of key lawmakers that if passed would force the US to end its military support for Saudi forces in Yemen within 30 days.
Of course, the other less talked about but equally pressing issue is the billions of dollars in weaponry that the United States and United Kingdom provide to the Saudis. President Trump had previously said within the weeks following Jamal Khashoggi's death that he wants to get to the bottom of it and promised "severe punishment" if Riyadh ordered the killing.
Using the economy as a straw man to avoid cracking down on Riyadh, Trump told 60 minutes that "I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that,” and added, "There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true."