Once again a creeping, years' long shadow war is expanding from indirect proxy intervention to direct engagement, complete with US "boots on the ground" where no American ground forces were previously thought to exist.
And it's not Syria, or Libya, or central Africa where the now familiar pattern played out before, but in the Arabian peninsula where the Pentagon has long claimed to merely coordinate intelligence, refuel jets, and provide logistical support to the Saudis which have been bombing Yemen since March of 2015.
On Thursday The New York Times revealed for the first time that US special forces have been on the ground supporting Saudi coalition forces since late last year:
But late last year, a team of about a dozen Green Berets arrived on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, in a continuing escalation of America’s secret wars.
With virtually no public discussion or debate, the Army commandos are helping locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites that Houthi rebels in Yemen are using to attack Riyadh and other Saudi cities.
Details of the Green Beret operation, which has not been previously disclosed, were provided to The New York Times by United States officials and European diplomats.
According to the report, the elite Army operators were sent to assist the Saudis starting in December, weeks after ballistic missiles fired by Yemeni Houthi rebels came close to directly hitting Riyadh's international airport, though the Saudis claimed to have intercepted it - a claim which was subsequently cast into doubt by weapons experts.
At that point, a worried Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly renewed calls for the the United States to send ground troops in order to bolster Saudi-led operations aimed at rooting out the source of the sophisticated Yemeni missile attacks, which have occurred on multiple occasions over the past year of fighting.
Like all administrations going back to 2001, the White House is relying on the the 9/11-era Authorization For Use of Military Force (AUMF) to give legal justification for its actions in the Arabian peninsula. But this time the target is not primarily al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Sunni Islamist militants, but Iran — which the Trump administration has repeatedly accused of supplying Yemen's Shia Houthis with its ballistic missile arsenal.
So it's not just a "Saudi" war. "US Army Special Forces Secretly Help Saudis Combat Threat From Yemen Rebels." https://t.co/LpbeNRdE2q— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) May 3, 2018
To underscore the US perception that it is fundamentally in a struggle against Iranian influence in Yemen, the Times quotes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who stated during a visit to Riyadh on Sunday, “Iran destabilizes this entire region.” Pompeo further charged Iran with supporting “militias and terrorist groups" — specifically that it is “an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.”
However, even the usually national security state-friendly New York Times isn't fully buying the "it's necessary to counter Iran" narrative spun by the Pentagon, instead calling the Green Beret presence "a marked escalation of Western assistance to target Houthi fighters who are deep in Yemen."
The NYT further notes that, “There is no evidence that the Houthis directly threaten the United States; they are an unsophisticated militant group with no operations outside Yemen and have not been classified by the American government as a terrorist group.”
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So if we are once again on the slow and creeping path of American "boots on the ground" in yet another Middle East proxy war, how did we get here?
To quickly review, Saudi airstrikes on already impoverished Yemen, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians (thousands among those are children according to the UN) and displaced hundreds of thousands, have been enabled by both US intelligence and military hardware. Cholera has recently exploded amidst the appalling war-time conditions, and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools have been bombed by the Saudis.
After Shia Houthi rebels overran Yemen’s north in 2014, embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi vowed to “extract Yemen from the claws of Iran” something which he's repeatedly affirmed, having been given international backing from allies in the West, and a major bombing campaign began on March 2015 under the name "Operation Decisive Storm" (in a cheap mirroring of prior US wars in Iraq, the first of which was "Desert Storm").
NYT: “There is no evidence that the Houthis directly threaten the United States; they are an unsophisticated militant group with no operations outside Yemen and have not been classified by the American government as a terrorist group.” https://t.co/Z09iFRNjYV— Max Abrahms (@MaxAbrahms) May 3, 2018
Saudi Arabia and its backers fear what they perceive as growing Iranian influence in the region, something considered by some analysts to be grossly exaggerated, and seek to defend at all costs Yemeni forces loyal to UN-recognized President Hadi - who since 2017 appears to be in some sort of house arrest situation in Riyadh. According to Al Jazeera Saudi Arabia's King Salman has denied Hadi's repeat requests to return to Yemen in order to rally forces loyal to him.
The pro-Saudi coalition goes far beyond US involvement but also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and Britain; and the Saudi initiated war has also received behind the scenes political support from Israel, something recently confirmed by Israeli officials.
Concerning the supposed Iran threat in Yemen, an emergency session of the Arab League held in response to the November 4th Houthi missile attack on Riyadh doubled down on its shared commitment to wage war against Iranian interests after it blamed Tehran for the supplying and advising the attack, which Iran for its part denies playing a role in.
The attack clearly rattled not just the Gulf allies, but the US itself (concerned chiefly over what it perceived as "Iran's reach"), which is apparently what led to the relatively quick deployment of the special forces to the Saudi border with Yemen.
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But for all the international powers involved in the anti-Houthi military alliance, the coalition may be dysfunctional and in shambles, at least according one major Middle East Eye investigation published in late 2017.
The report predicted that the Saudi military campaign is likely to end in total failure as "more than two years into a disastrous war, the coalition of ground forces assembled by the Saudis is showing signs of crumbling" and as the Saudis have become increasingly reliant on foreign mercenaries for its ground forces, such as a huge contingent of Sudanese mercenaries and UAE officers.
It is entirely possible and probable that should the coalition suffer continued setbacks, or should at any point Houthis gain in strength and territory, the US would bolster its role by ramping up its current special forces contingent. As recent history has born out — most especially in Syria for example — a tiny "footprint" easily slides into small forward operating bases, and then on to thousands of conventional forces, without so much as a peep from Congress.
On that note, however, the New York Times reports the following congressional exception:
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the Armed Services Committee, on Thursday called the Green Berets mission a “purposeful blurring of lines between train and equip missions and combat.” He cited the report in The Times and called for a new congressional vote on the authorization for the use of military force — a war powers legislation used by three successive presidents in conflict zones around the world.
And concerning just what the Green Berets have been and will be doing along the Yemeni-Saudi border, the Times continues:
A half-dozen officials — from the United States military, the Trump administration, and European and Arab nations — said the American commandos are training Saudi ground troops to secure their [Saudis] border. They also are working closely with American intelligence analysts in Najran, a city in southern Saudi Arabia that has been repeatedly attacked with rockets, to help locate Houthi missile sites within Yemen.
Along the porous border, the Americans are working with surveillance planes that can gather electronic signals to track the Houthi weapons and their launch sites, according to the officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the mission publicly.
In spite of the usual promises to the contrary, we expect to hear of direct US commando and pro-Iranian Houthi clashes any day now.
And likely, the currently reported number of about "a dozen" US special forces on the ground is perhaps much higher, as Wednesday's NYT report itself suggests: On April 17, Robert S. Karem, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States had about 50 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, “largely helping on the ballistic missile threat.”
As we've pointed out the obvious many times before, whether it's the Middle East, Africa, or Eastern Europe, the familiar pattern of American military expansion goes something like this...
First we are promised that US troops are merely in a country for limited "training" missions with "partner" forces; next we are told of "counter-terror" operations which require an increased "footprint"; after which we are assured once again that there are "no boots on the ground" but a "minimal" increase of train and assist missions; finally, US soldiers begin to come home in body bags at which point the 9/11 era AUMF is cynically invoked and Congress passively looks the other way.
And now it appears the cycle will repeat itself in already war-torn Yemen.