As the Saudis ask Pakistan to provide ground troops for a possible invasion in Yemen, the U.S. will likely limit its assistance to providing intelligence and not get American forces involved in a ground war, analysts said.
Saudi Arabian planes have been striking Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen with American support for close to two weeks, causing chaos in the country that is serving as a breeding ground for terrorist activity. With the airstrikes unable to halt the Houthis advance, Pakistan’s defense minister said Monday that the Saudis were asking for ground troops for a possible invasion, The Associated Press reported.
Analysts predicted, however, that while the U.S. will continue to provide limited intelligence for airstrikes, it is unlikely to get involved with another ground war in the Middle East.
“There is U.S. strategic interest in returning some sense of stability to Yemen. The issue is, I don’t think there is a political appetite including among Americans for a ground war,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp. “I don’t know that the U.S. wants to get directly engaged.”
A 20-person joint committee in Ridayh, Saudi Arabia, including a “handful” of U.S. advisers, is providing intelligence to the Saudis to create a battleground picture, including general locations of the enemy and “no strike” areas that could contribute to collateral damage, the senior defense official said.
The U.S. is not, however, providing specific targeting intelligence, the official said.
Mr. Jones said the U.S. may be withholding targeting information because it is unwilling to share some sensitive sources or intelligence collection methods with Saudi Arabia.
Nick Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for New American Security, said the Saudi strikes have not made the Houthi rebels more likely to come to the table for a diplomatic solution and have instead further inflamed the conflict. Continued airstrikes will only destabilize the country more and make it a breeding ground for recruitment by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, he said.
“The Saudi airstrikes are creating conditions for a more brutal sectarian conflict inside the country, which could increase al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State’s ability to recruit, which is a bad precedent,” Mr. Heras said.
In addition to growing terrorist concerns in the region, civilian casualties from Saudi strikes executed with poor intelligence are causing an international uproar from humanitarian agencies.
Despite these concerns, the defense official said the U.S. has not made any decisions to change its assistance to Saudi Arabia given the civilian casualties and will “continue to assess” the battle.
Members of Congress questioned the administration’s refusal to become more involved in the conflict and try to bring more stability to the region to prevent further civilian losses or terrorist gains.
“As the battle against this global insurgent network continues, it becomes clearer that the Obama administration lacks a comprehensive strategy in the region,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
Almost 100 civilians have been killed and more than 350 injured since March 27, according to reports by the United Nations. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the country seemed to be “on the verge of total collapse” and called on both sides to do what they could to protect civilians.
Mr. Heras said Saudi Arabia has modern aircraft, communications and weapons technologies that can hit a target accurately. The large numbers of civilians reportedly being killed in Saudi strikes means that Houthi rebels have interfered with the Saudis’ ability to gather information on the ground in Yemen, he said.
The Saudi-led coalition is trying to carve out an enclave so that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country two weeks ago, could return.
Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to contribute soldiers to the military campaign, as well as air and naval assets, Pakistan’s defense minister said Monday. Pakistan’s parliament is debating the request and is expected to vote in coming days.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir played down any imminent coalition ground invasion in Yemen.
“No options are taken off the table, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” Mr. al-Jubeir told journalists in Washington. “We’re in the air phase.”