2015 deployment took leathernecks to Saudi Arabia
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Since March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab nations has waged an increasingly brutal war over the future of Yemen. Despite being a major ally of Riyadh, the United States has tried to keep the conflict at a distance and its forces away from the fighting.
Or at least it appears that way on the surface. In reality, the Pentagon has been refueling Arab planes as they attack targets in the small nation, delivering weapons and other supplies to the Saudis and their partners and training their troops.
On April 3, 2015, U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit traveled to Saudi Arabia to train troops heading to the front lines. Already in the region aboard a flotilla centered on the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, the leathernecks helped American citizens evacuate Yemen through the port city of Aden a month before.
The troops were “committed to … support to KSA and Partner Nation Operations in and around Yemen,” was the most an Oct. 28, 2015 briefing by Navy Capt. Michael McMillan and Marine Lt. Col. Sean Dynan had to say on the matter. KSA stands for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the time, McMillan was in charge of Amphibious Squadron Eight — including Iwo Jima — while Dynan was the head of the 24th MEU.
We don’t know exactly what sort of training or advice the sailors and Marines provided to their Saudi counterparts. Another slide in the briefing suggests other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — a political and economic bloc in the Arabian Peninsula — may have benefited from the sessions.
The Americans “provided advisory support to KSA forces,” a public affairs officer for the top Navy command in the Middle East said, declining to provide any further details about the deployment. “The MEU did not engage in direct or indirect combat and were limited to a purely advisory role.”
Though it’s unlikely the entire unit went to Saudi Arabia, a typical MEU has more than 2,000 Marines in total. With infantry, tanks and armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft, the unit could have shared lessons and best practices about all types of military operations.
The support officially ended on June 21, 2015, when the Iwo Jima and her sister ships left for the Mediterranean. The Marines made other stops in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
According to the public affairs officer, the Marines’ trip was simply one part of decades of Saudi-American cooperation. However, though the relationship does date back to before World War II, the Pentagon’s recent work in the country is inextricably related to more current events.
“Washington remains keen to demonstrate that — despite the Iran deal — the U.S. government still has KSA and the Gulf States’ back,” Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained to War Is Boring in an email. “The Yemen conflict provides an opportunity on this front.”
The conflict in Yemen itself has an Iranian connection.
A significant portion of Yemeni rebels fighting the government, the Saudis and the Gulf States are members of a group known as the Houthis. A minority sect of Zaidi Muslims, itself a breakaway branch of Shia Islam, the movement has a long history fighting Sunni influence in the country. This had already brought them into direct conflict with the Saudis as recently as 2009.
Despite denials from the group, both Riyadh and Washington see the Houthis as part of the Iran-centered “Shia Crescent.” And regardless of any rapprochement with Tehran after signing a deal over the country’s nuclear program, American officials have not warmed to the idea of potential Iranian proxies taking control in Yemen.
So, “the U.S. has been providing targeting, refueling and other forms of assistance to the [Saudi] coalition since the start of their military operations,” Baron added. As of Nov. 20, 2015, U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers had pumped fuel into Arab jets on more than 2,500 occasions, delivering more than 18 million pounds of fuel in the process.
At around the same time, the Pentagon announced plans to ship nearly $1.3 billion in smart bombs to the Saudis. Five months earlier, the State Department approved a deal for $500 million worth of ammunition, hand grenades, land mines and other explosives.
But its not just intelligence, weapons and fuel. The Marine deployment highlights the fact that the Pentagon hasn’t shied away from a more active role in the conflict. In February and March of this year, American, Australian and French warships seized three separate shipments of arms reportedly on their way to Houthi fighters. The Pentagon accused Iran of trying to smuggle the weapons into Yemen.
And “the U.S. has, of course, been continuing its drone campaign against AQAP despite the ongoing Saudi-led military intervention,” Baron noted, referring to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s regional franchise. The United Arab Emirates “was the main force behind anti-A.Q. actions in the south, but it would be far from surprising if there was U.S. aid.”
Before Yemen began collapsing into civil war in September 2014, Washington had been working with authorities in Sana’a to defeat Al Qaeda in the country. Even with increasing allegations of Saudi human rights violations and possible war crimes, the Pentagon clearly sees an incentive to support the campaign. The longer the fighting drags on, the more time both the Houthis and AQAP have to regroup.
As a result, Washington may be expanding its more direct support. On April 29, NPR reporter Tom Bowman posted on Twitter that an American commando team had touched down in Yemen to work with UAE troops and local government forces.
But if the Saudis and their allies continue to have trouble bringing an end to the conflict, the Pentagon could decide to send more commandos, Marines and other troops to help out … possibly even in an “indirect combat” role.
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