Green Berets on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen are helping find and destroy Houthi missiles and launch sites, quietly expanding the U.S. role in a war it has tried to avoid.
WASHINGTON — For years, the U.S. military has sought to distance itself from a brutal civil war in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces are battling rebels who pose no direct threat to the United States.
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 the Saudi capital, 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 U.S. officials and European diplomats.
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They appear to contradict Pentagon statements that U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics and general intelligence sharing.
There is no indication that the U.S. commandos have crossed into Yemen as part of the mission.
But sending U.S. ground forces to the border is a marked escalation of Western assistance to target Houthi fighters who are deep in Yemen.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., 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 New York Times and called for a new congressional vote on the authorization for the use of military force, war-powers legislation used by three successive presidents in conflict zones around the world.
Beyond its years as a base for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has been convulsed by civil strife since 2014, when the Shiite Muslim rebels from the country’s north stormed the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, ousted the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the main U.S. counterterrorism partner in Yemen.
In 2015, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia began bombing the Houthis, who have responded by firing missiles into the kingdom. Yet there is no evidence that the Houthis directly threaten the United States; they are a group with no operations outside Yemen and have not been classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.
The Green Berets, the Army’s Special Forces, deployed to the border in December, weeks after a ballistic missile fired from Yemen sailed close to Riyadh. The Saudi military said it intercepted the missile over the city’s international airport, a claim that was cast in doubt by an analysis of photos and videos of the strike. But it was enough for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to renew a long-standing request that the United States send troops to help the kingdom combat the Houthi threat.
A half-dozen officials — from the U.S. military, the Trump administration and European and Arab nations — said the U.S. commandos are training Saudi ground troops to secure their border. They also are working closely with U.S. 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.
During a meeting on Capitol Hill in March, senators pressed Pentagon officials about the military’s role in the Saudi-led conflict.
Pentagon officials told the senators what had already been said publicly: U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia only advised within the kingdom’s borders and were focused mostly on border defense.
“We are authorized to help the Saudis defend their border,” Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. 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.”
Robert Karem, assistant secretary of defense for international-security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 17 that the United States had about 50 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, “largely helping on the ballistic-missile threat.”