Late last year, the U.S. deployed around a dozen Green Beret Special Forces personnel on the Saudi Arabian border with Yemen. The New York Times reports that the troops were officially deployed to help train Saudi forces to defend the porous border with Yemen, but are also helping “locate and destroy” caches of ballistic missiles and target launch sites used by the Houthi rebels. There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Berets have crossed the border into Yemen.
The secretive nature of the operation is highlighted by Pentagon statements in March during a meeting on Capitol Hill. Pentagon officials insisted that cooperation with Saudi Arabia remain based around aircraft refuelling, logistics and intelligence sharing.
“We are authorized to help the Saudis defend their border,” General Joseph Votel, Head of the United States Central Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13. “We are doing that through intelligence sharing, through logistics support and through military advice that we provide to them.”
The presence of the Green Berets in Saudi Arabia is the latest example of the growing relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia since the election of President Trump. It represents a trend away from previous years, where the U.S. military sought to distance itself from the brutal civil war in Yemen. While former President Obama blocked arms sales and regularly criticized the Saudi Arabian coalition for the civilian casualties inflicted through its bombing campaign, President Trump’s first official overseas visit after taking office was to Riyadh. President Trump has also approved billions of dollars in arms sales to the Saudis and has massively increased airstrikes in the region.
While the support of the United States may bring the Yemeni conflict back to international attention, its support for the Saudi coalition weakens any incentive for the Saudis to reduce civilian casualties; international support should be stipulated on the coalition improving its humanitarian record from its current appalling state. A 2016 study showed that over one-third of Saudi-led airstrikes on the Yemen hit civilian sites, including school buildings and hospitals, while in January this year a U.N. panel of experts reported that, “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives…it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.” There have been accusations against both sides in the conflict of violating international law and the laws of war, including using outlawed munitions and chemical weapons. Only last week, reports emerged of a Saudi-led airstrike on a wedding party in Northwest Yemen, which killed more than 20 people.
The Saudi coalition also has tense relationships with the official Yemeni Government of President Hadi, who is currently in Riyadh. In November last year, AP reported that President Hadi and his family had been prevented from returning to the Yemen by Saudi Arabia due to tensions with the United Arab Emirates. The coalition’s mandate as a protector of the country and its government is thus, somewhat distorted as it regularly commits breaches of human rights and has the democratically elected ruler controlled outside his country.
The involvement of the U.S. also raises questions back in America, where memories of both George Bush’s “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan and Barack Obama’s “thin red line” in Syria haunt the collective conscience of the nation. These concerns have been amplified due to the increase in counterterrorism activities the U.S. is carrying out in the Yemen against al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Congressional members from both parties have questioned what, and how much the U.S. is doing in Yemen.
The increasing presence of U.S. troops in the Yemen therefore, inflames a plethora of problems in an already complicated situation. While intervention could have benefits from a peacekeeping perspective (especially compared to the current campaign), for it to be effective there would have to be a concerted call for the reduction of civilian casualties and a more open process, as well as more care taken to follow all forms of international law. However, the history of interventions in the Middle East is largely negative, and civilians often pay the price for the international hubris of great powers. If peace is to be restored, the first step is to hold international actors to account for the atrocities which have already been committed in the Yemen, and to ensure humanitarian considerations are met by as many parties as possible in the conflict.
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