The United States’ decision to end airborne refueling support to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen means nothing militarily. It is cost-free virtue signaling by the Trump administration.
It’s an opportunity to appear a little bit cross over the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi while making sure that the Kingdom’s strategic trajectory stays on course.
It’s a way to appear annoyed that soon after the US called for a ceasefire in the Yemen war, the Saudi-led coalition launched an air and ground assault on the port of Hodeida, which is held by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
And it’s a way to distract attention from the fact that the French and British, just like their US allies, are continuing much more important military support for the Saudi side in the war.
Ending mid-air refueling by US air tankers for Saudi jets is right up there with a “strongly worded letter.”
Saudi Arabia’s efforts in the war, which the United Nations says could lead to 14 million people facing famine, will be unaffected by the US gesture. In fact, the Saudis even claimed ending the refueling was their idea.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the member countries of the Coalition to Support legitimacy in Yemen, continually pursue improvements to military professionalism and self-sufficiency. Recently the Kingdom and the Coalition has increased its capability to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen. As a result, in consultation with the United States, the Coalition has requested cessation of inflight refueling support for its operations in Yemen,” the Saudi government said in a statement.
Ending refueling might be the first stage in a greater effort to force the Saudis to the negotiating table – along with their allies from the Yemeni government, the United Arab Emirates, Sudanese forces and an assortment of militia groups – which include radical Salafist organizations.
Yemen: The images Saudi Arabia doesn't want you to see
There is much more that could be done.
The US is the major supplier of munitions to the Saudi Air Force, and also supplies military intelligence. The United Kingdom and France also provide weapons to Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the United Kingdom has been helping with what the military calls “battle damage assessment” (the aftermath of fighting and bombing), while France has sent specialist naval warfare advisers to the coalition side to help prevent seaborne attacks and mining operations by the Houthis.
There are perfectly sensible real-world reasons for this, mostly centered on the Iranian support for the Houthis – a rebel movement which controls Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa.
Its strategic capabilities have been vastly enhanced with Iranian supplies of hardware and knowhow, which has produced long-range ballistic missiles that are used against Saudi targets. And, advanced techniques for the manufacture of drones and improvised explosive devices.
From the Saudi perspective the Houthis represent a threat similar to the one posed by Hezbollah to Israel from south Lebanon.
Hezbollah is now a potent military force capable of launching tens of thousands of missiles against Israel and inflicting strategic, if not existential, pain.
The Houthis, like Hezbollah, are Iranian-backed and a proxy for the regional Shia-Sunni and Irani-Saudi Arabia rivalry for regional dominance of the Middle East.
Of that they control a swathe of the western coastline of Yemen from which, theoretically, they could disrupt or even choke off shipping along the Red Sea.
This is anathema to Europe and could give Iran a stranglehold on one of the world’s most important economic arteries.
But the Yemen war is ugly. Reports are emerging of starving children, fears of a cholera epidemic, and it’s hard to drum up support in Washington for air strikes prosecuted by oil-rich Arab monarchies against Yemen tribesmen.
US support for the Saudi-led coalition suffers from a bipartisan lack of support in Washington. So it’s important for the Trump administration to appear to be exercised about human rights violations, and be trying to avoid humanitarian catastrophe.
But it’s all window dressing.
Morality is often trumped by reality in foreign affairs, especially in this administration.