One Yemeni citizen was very clear that the people can hear the sounds of drones every night in Sana'a, but were surprised to know that this was a US drone. "What," asked Hussam Al-Sanabani, "was it doing?"
He was referring to the US drone shot down by the Iranian-backed Houthi group in the Yemeni capital last weekend. The presence of US drones over Houthi-controlled territory suggests that Washington is providing intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition. War crime allegations have been levied against Saudi Arabia for targeting civilians indiscriminately in air strikes.
"This incident is under investigation," said Pentagon spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway. "We assess that an MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was shot down in western Yemen on 1 October, 2017. We use unmanned platforms like these to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, including to track terrorist networks."
US involvement in Yemen dates back to 2002, when it began counterterrorism strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); in the process, it has killed 1,238 people with 300 confirmed strikes. America's engagement in Yemen was solely under the pretext of the War on Terrorism, but since 2014 there has also been a civil war in the country. The US-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has been weakened by a Houthi coup, and the Saudi-led coalition is supporting Hadi in his efforts to retake control of the country from the rebels, who are allied with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Is the US providing intelligence to Saudi Arabia?
What role are the US drones playing in all of this, especially in providing intelligence for the coalition air strikes which have killed hundreds of civilians? Saudi Arabia's recent Faj Attan air strike in Sana'a targeted an apartment block leaving 12 dead, including six children; as with other attacks, this has been described as a possible war crime.
AQAP and other "terrorist networks" are not located in the Yemeni capital, so why was the MQ-9 drone over the city? The US is officially providing "non-combat advisory and coordinating" support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Rankine-Galloway confirmed to MEMO. The US Department of Defence is also providing "refuelling support to Coalition aircraft and intelligence support to assist Saudi Arabia in preventing cross-border attacks," he added.
The absence of AQAP in Houthi-controlled areas is well-known, said Yemen-based journalist Hussain Albukhaiti. "The number of US drones over Sana'a has increased since the war started, which means that their job is to collect information and pictures as well as to coordinate for the Saudi led coalition," he claimed.
The US has not proscribed the Houthis, so the legal niceties depend on the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) 2001, which permits force against those held responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The Houthis, however, have no connection to 9/11, and thus the US should need a new authorisation to allow hostilities against the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
In March, US President Donald Trump introduced a policy shift which allows the American military to use lethal force in designated areas known as "temporary battlefields" for up to six-months. This has enabled a greater number of raids, drone strikes and Special Forces operations in Yemen without congressional approval.
Moreover, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now pushing to expand its powers to conduct covert drone strikes, something that the Trump White House favours, regardless of the Pentagon's reservations. The Obama administration limited the use of counterterrorism raids and drone strikes, but Trump appears to be trigger happy. The White House is being lobbied to approve the CIA proposal, leading to fears of grave international human rights abuses around the world. Without any transparency or accountability for drone strikes, raids or other counterterrorism operations, it is a serious development. It could be that Trump is considering including the Houthis as a military target in a bid to influence the situation on the ground in Yemen. This is particularly likely given that US policy in Yemen is at risk by threats to Hadi's government.
It is not surprising that the Houthis shot down a US drone
There should be little surprise that the Houthis shot down the US drone, as the group has demonstrated its possession of sophisticated weaponry in Yemen's civil war. It's certainly not the first time that they have downed such a drone; one such incident was reported in February in Marib province. This video [https://twitter.com/HussainBukhaiti/status/915970630855614464] posted by Hussain Albukhaiti shows the surface-to-air missile used to obliterate the aircraft, which landed in north-west Sana'a.
According to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Iran is supplying arms to the Houthis. The coalition operating in the Arabian Sea has "revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis," he said.
The US appears to be blurring its objectives in the Yemen civil war and helping the Saudi-led coalition with surveillance against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. It's not clear whether America will engage directly against alliance fighters, but this could be a major game-changer in the conflict.
The long-awaited war crimes experts assigned to Yemen should investigate the extent to which the US government is providing "non-combat advisory and coordinating" support to the Saudi-led coalition. In particular, this should include those air strikes within Houthi-controlled territory, which bear all the hallmarks of war crimes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.