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Saudi airstrikes on Yemeni civilians may have put a target on the backs of U.S. troops

People inspect the aftermath of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on Oct. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrhman)

Airstrikes on a funeral in Yemen on Saturday have inflamed local opinion, and Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Houthi rebels has implicated the United States in civilian deaths, according to human rights groups. But there’s another potential side effect: It may have prompted the rebels to turn their weapons against U.S. forces.

The strikes killed more than 140 people and wounded hundreds more. Saudi officials have denied they carried out the attack, but two U.S. defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there is little reason to believe that.

The attacks on a funeral for a Houthi rebel commander in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa are the latest in a long line of strikes that have killed more than 4,000 civilians since the Saudis began launching airstrikes against the rebels in March 2015.

Deadly air strikes hit a Sanaa funeral hall on Oct. 8 and killed more than 100 people, leaving outrage and mourning in its wake. (Video: Reuters)

Within hours of the airstrike on the funeral, a missile was launched from Houthi-controlled territory over Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia and two more were fired at the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, and the USS Ponce, an amphibious staging base, that were in the Red Sea.

Missiles from rebel-held Yemen territory fired at U.S. Navy destroyer, Saudi military base

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that the first missile was launched Sunday about 7 p.m. from a coastal area while the Mason was at least 12 miles offshore in international waters. The ship took undisclosed defensive measures while the first missile was incoming, and the projectile splashed in the sea before causing any damage, he said.

“We want very much to get to the bottom of what happened,” Davis said. “Anybody who fires on U.S. Navy ships does so at peril to themselves.”

One U.S. defense official said the second missile was fired at the Mason about an hour after the first, and it traveled at least 24 miles as the ship was moving away from the shore. Like the first missile, it landed in the water, although in the second case no defensive measures were taken.

The Houthis took credit for firing the missile north into Saudi Arabia on Saturday night but denied they were involved in firing on U.S. ships. Davis said that the “facts certainly seem to point” to the Houthis being involved but that the U.S. is still assessing what happened. The Houthis regularly characterize military operations against their forces as “U.S.-Saudi aggression.”

The missile launches came a few days after the HSV-2 Swift, an Emirati catamaran-style ship that was previously owned by the United States, suffered significant damage in a missile strike off the coast of the port city of Mokha. The Houthi-run Saba news agency reported that the rebels launched the missile involved, and images published online afterward show that the ship suffered significant damage.

A report from USNI News published Monday said the Mason fired at least three missiles in its own defense: two Standard Missile-2s and an Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile to intercept the missile. The outcome of those launches was not clear. The Mason also fired a Nulka anti-ship missile decoy, the report said. The decoys are designed to fool incoming missiles into believing there is another, larger ship to hit than the one targeted.

Video posted online purports to show an Emirati ship destroyed off the coast of Mochathe, Yemen, by Houthi fighters on Oct. 1. (Video: YouTube/War Media Yemen)

The Obama administration said after the strikes on the funeral that they had “initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support” to the Saudis and are “prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, Army Maj. Josh Jacques, said late Tuesday that at this point, the military has not been directed to ‎change any support in regard to Saudi Arabia. Refueling operations are carried at the request of the Saudis, most recently on Sunday, outside Yemeni air space, he said.

The U.S. military previously provided the Saudis with other forms of support, including intelligence that could be developed into targets in Yemen. However, the Pentagon this summer scaled back a Joint Combined Planning Cell working with the Saudis from about 45 U.S. service members to five. Since June, support outside of refueling operations has been “minimal,” and no longer includes providing targeting information or intelligence, a defense official said.

Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said that the strikes on the funeral have again put Washington in the spotlight as the “chief protector” of the Saudi kingdom, despite the latter’s ugly record on human rights. It’s unlikely the United States will be willing to entirely give up that relationship, however, because the Saudis help counter the regional influence of Iran, which smuggles weapons to the Houthis, Harmer said.

Harmer raised the possibility that the missiles launched at the Mason could have been a variant of the Silkworm, a Chinese-engineered anti-ship missile whose design was based on the Soviet P-15 Termit missile. Both models fly hundreds of miles per hour and can travel up to 90 miles. They probably would have been smuggled in from Iran, Harmer said.

The Saudi war in Yemen has helped the United States in at least one regard. U.S. Special Operations troops were forced to leave al-Anad air base in southwestern Yemen in March 2015 as security deteriorated in the country following the fall of the Yemeni government. Within two months of the Saudi airstrikes, however, the United States again deployed a small number of Special Operations troops to Yemen to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered among the most dangerous of the group’s affiliates.

The United States extended that deployment in June, with defense officials saying they also were sending a small team of Special Operations troops to the Yemeni city of Mukalla after it was recaptured from AQAP by Emirati and Yemeni government forces.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss special operations, said Tuesday that it is unlikely the counterterrorism mission in Yemen will be affected by the ongoing review of military support the Saudis receive from the United States.

“I think everyone understands the very important mission at hand,” the official said. “I don’t think this situation with Saudi Arabia is going to affect our ability to directly go after the enemies of our nation.”

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