As the war between Israel and Hamas threatens to draw in Yemen, the United States military’s little noted boots on the ground in the war-torn country raise the specter of deepening American involvement in the conflict.
On Monday, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired ballistic and cruise missiles at Israel. The attack marked the first time ballistic missiles have been launched at Israel since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel in 1991, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and expert on the region. The use of ballistic missiles represents a major escalation that threatens to ignite a regional war — with American troops stationed nearby.
“The best strategy to avoid getting sucked into another war in the Middle East is to not have troops unnecessarily in the region in the first place.”
“The best strategy to avoid getting sucked into another war in the Middle East is to not have troops unnecessarily in the region in the first place — and bring those who are there now home,” said Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank that advocates for a restrained foreign policy. “Their presence there is not making America more safe, it’s putting America more at risk of yet another war in the Middle East.”
Though the size of the American special operations footprint inside Yemen has ebbed and flowed — the U.S. has been at war there since 2000 — the White House revealed in June that the U.S. maintains “combat” troops in Yemen. “United States military personnel are deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS,” the White House disclosed in a previously unreported passage of its most recent War Powers Resolution report to Congress.
The Houthis are not listed as an official target of the U.S. special forces mission in Yemen, but the Pentagon has used its authorities under the war on the Islamic State to strike at Iranian-backed groups elsewhere. Last week, the U.S. bombed two facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias in Syria in retaliation for attacks on U.S. installations in the region by militant groups supported by Iran.
Analysts, however, cautioned against viewing the Houthi strike as part of a wider Iranian campaign without any evidence.
“One should be cautious about interpreting the missile attack as part of some grand strategy of an Iranian-led ‘axis of resistance,’” Paul Pillar, a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, told The Intercept. “The Houthis, notwithstanding material support from Iran, have been making their own decisions: probably their biggest move in the war in Yemen — capture of the capital city of Sanaa — they reportedly made against the advice of the Iranians.”
President Joe Biden justified U.S. strikes on Syrian targets as a deterrence strategy, but some observers say any deterrence will be undermined by the fact that the U.S.’s massive regional military presence provides a bevy of available targets.
“Biden believes that current and new U.S. troops in the region serve as a deterrent against attacks by Iran or its allies,” said the Quincy Institute’s Parsi. “But rather than deterring these actors, oftentimes U.S. troops are sitting ducks that provide the Houthis or Iraqi militias with more targets. Even lawmakers who don’t want more war in the Middle East will be compelled to push for military action if these troops come under attack.”
Yemen has been locked in a brutal civil war since 2014, with the Houthi rebel group in the north supported by Iran and the south’s government in exile supported by the United States and a coalition of Yemen’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States has consistently supported the Saudi-backed Aden government.
U.S. operations in Yemen are overseen by Special Operations Command Central Forward – Yemen, or SOCCENT FWD Yemen — and commonly abbreviated as SFY — a forward element of the Tampa-based Special Operations Command that oversees the counterterrorism campaign in the Middle East, from Pakistan to Egypt.
While the Defense Department has never formally acknowledged SOCCENT FWD Yemen or its mission — which are being reported here for the first time — clues of its existence and aims can be gleaned from scattered references, along with details provided to The Intercept by a military officer.
A senior military officer that served in SFY, granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Intercept that, during the beginning of the Trump administration, he oversaw plans to train a 300-person Yemeni tribal fighting force in order to conduct long-term unconventional warfare and counterterror operations.
In 2015, a former SFY commander, Capt. Robert A. Newson, then a Navy SEAL, provided a similar account in an interview with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Having served in SFY until 2012, Newson said that the troops there “trained and advised Yemeni partners” and, more vaguely, that they were “deeply embedded within the embassy and their activities.”
Since then, the main U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has closed amid the chaos of the Yemeni civil war.