The Saudi-United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition has recently called for an end to ongoing aid operations with the United States for in-flight refuelling support. The coalition feels able to undertake these operations without the aid of the United States, now that it has the means to carry out this task independently without impacting ongoing operations. This end to refuelling assistance in the ongoing conflict with Yemen was made in consultation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the United States. The United States has expressed its support for the decision.
The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) released an official statement on the matter, explaining that “Recently, the kingdom and the coalition has increased its capacity to independently conduct in-flight refuelling in Yemen […] As a result, in consultation with the United States, the coalition has requested cessation of in-flight refuelling support for its operations in Yemen.” United States Defence Secretary Jim Mattis expressed his support for the Saudi decision, stating that, ”The U.S. and the coalition are planning to collaborate on building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people, secure the country’s borders, and contribute to counter al-Qaeda and ISIS (also known as ISIL) efforts in Yemen and the region.”
The decision of the United States and Saudi-UAE coalition to discontinue refuelling support is one that appears unlikely to have any substantial impact on the ongoing Yemen conflict. According to recent statements by U.S. officials, it is estimated that the coalition forces are already handling 80% of their own refuelling operations. This, in turn, frees up resources for the United States to focus its efforts on bringing an end to the conflict, for example by attempting to ensure reorganized peace-talks can go ahead as planned, although the volume of resources being redirected appears minimal.
The United States has been involved in aiding the refuelling of Saudi aircraft ever since the commencement of operations by both countries in 2015. However, the estimated number of these missions offered by the United States has steadily decreased over the course of the operation. Officials stated that they only a fifth of Coalition aircraft required refuelling from the United States. Saudi Arabia already has 23 aircraft prepared to undertake in-flight refuelling operations, with an additional nine aircraft that can be deployed for the same purpose out of the capital city of Riyadh.
Lawmakers have been attempting to curtail the United States’ involvement in these operations since March, with some, such as four star General Joseph Votel, expressing concern over the impact that this would have on the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, continuing to offer aid when none is required will benefit nobody, especially with the scale of the conflict in Yemen, which has already seen the deaths of 56,000 Yemenis. If the United States is to make any progress in bringing this conflict to a close it must not waste resources which can be better utilized elsewhere. This agreement may make other actors such as the Houthis, who have been reluctant to attend talks, more confident in meeting with U.S. and coalition officials.
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