In a move designed to head off efforts by Congress to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration announced the U.S. will no longer refuel aircraft belonging to the coalition of Sunni Arab states fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Congress could meet as early as next week to find ways to sanction the Saudis, and the primary target would have been the U.S.-backed refueling operations in Yemen.
The United States and Britain late last month called for a ceasefire in Yemen to support U.N.-led efforts to end the nearly four-year long war that has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
“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,” it said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia has a fleet of 23 planes for refueling operations, including six Airbus 330 MRTT used for Yemen, while the United Arab Emirates has six of the Airbus planes, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya al-Hadath channel reported on Saturday.
Riyadh also has nine KC-130 Hercules aircraft that can be used, it added.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. government was consulted on the decision and that Washington supported the move while continuing to work with the alliance to minimize civilian casualties and expand humanitarian efforts.
The Saudis are getting hit from two sides by Congress, being criticized for the 10,000 civilians killed in Yemen during the four-year war and the Khashoggi murder. But Congress could decide to limit or cancel the $120 billion arms deal Trump made with the Saudis earlier this year. That would have economic and strategic consequences beyond the murder of a journalist.
The Saudis are on the front lines in the U.S. war against Iran. With the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran by the U.S., it is hoped that military pressure from the Saudis that is draining Iranian resources and economic pressure from the U.S. will continue to undermine the regime.
Trump has other options to sanction the Saudis without Congress.
The Trump administration is also expected to soon announce economic sanctions against Saudi officials linked to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, according to current and former officials. They said senior officials at the White House and State and Treasury Departments had discussed imposing the sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the executive branch the power to punish foreign officials involved in human rights abuses. The announcement could come in days.
The Magnitsky Act is aimed primarily at Russia and their extrajudicial executions of dissidents abroad. Using the Act to sanction the Saudis — a move that the administration would not need Congress to approve — could forestall other, more serious sanctions against Riyadh later.
It appears that the Saudis will not escape some kind of punishment for their shocking murder of Khashoggi. Whether these moves will satisfy Congress is another matter.