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DoD denies using occupied Yemeni island to fight Houthis

DoD denies using occupied Yemeni island to fight Houthis

Putting American soldiers on Socotra would be a ‘flagrant breach of Yemen’s sovereignty,’ said one expert

Reporting | Middle East

The Department of Defense is denying a report that the U.S. is sending military reinforcements and missile defense batteries to the Yemeni island of Socotra, which sits near the mouth of the Red Sea, in order to help fend off Houthi attacks.

“[T]here are no U.S. forces present on Socotra,” a Pentagon spokesperson told RS.

Sky News Arabia first reported last week that U.S. officials chose to place troops on Socotra due to Saudi restrictions on the use of its airspace or territory to conduct attacks on the Houthis, who fought a Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition from 2015 until they reached an uneasy truce in early 2022.

Saudi Arabia has also forbidden American forces from using missile defense batteries placed in Saudi territory to fend off Houthi attacks, according to the Sky News Arabia report, which relies on an unnamed U.S. official. RS could not independently verify Sky News Arabia’s reporting.

If true, the presence of U.S. forces on Socotra would raise significant legal questions given that the United Arab Emirates, alongside Yemeni separatists, have quietly taken over the island in recent years in apparent violation of Yemeni sovereignty. Today, the UAE militarily occupies the island known for its otherworldly landscapes, which Emirati citizens can now visit without a visa.

An American presence on Socotra would be “a flagrant breach of Yemen’s sovereignty,” according to Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). By placing American soldiers on occupied territory, the Biden administration “undermines the credibility of America's condemnation of Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory,” Whitson argued.

“Biden’s understanding of the 'rules based-order' appears to amount to ‘do as I say, not as I do,’” she told RS.

The Socotra claim raises questions about how the U.S. is seeking to thwart Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, which the Houthis say are a response to Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, which has now left more than 32,000 Palestinians dead, mostly civilians. The U.S. has mounted a months-long campaign to degrade the armed group’s capabilities but has so far failed to restore calm in the strategic waterway, which leads to the Suez Canal.

The length and scale of operations against the Houthis have raised concerns among legal experts, who argue that the White House must seek congressional authorization for its military campaign. Some military analysts also worry that American attacks risk further inflaming tensions in the Middle East.

“[I]t should now be obvious there is no credible military solution to the crisis in the Red Sea,” wrote Michael DiMino, a fellow at Defense Priorities, in RS. U.S. bombings create “a non-trivial risk of regional war that can only be ignored at the world’s peril,” DiMino argued.

Sky News Arabia’s use of the term “reinforcements” suggests that the Pentagon may have previously sent soldiers to Socotra without public knowledge. In 2022, reports claimed that the U.S. government was considering Socotra as a location for missile defense sensors to support American troops and their allies in the region. It is not clear if those reported talks are related to the recent move.

A Houthi spokesperson said the Socotra news is evidence of the “effectiveness of Yemeni attacks in the direction of the Indian Ocean,” according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi. The group, which has largely won the Yemeni civil war but is not part of the internationally recognized government, also described the reported U.S. presence as “illegal.”

The Sky News Arabia report highlights the complexity of creating a united front to military thwart Houthi attacks. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE once welcomed U.S. support in fighting the armed group, regional powers are now determined to prevent a reignition of the Yemen conflict and wary of appearing to side with Israel and the U.S. against the Palestinians. These factors help explain why the U.S. has struggled to build regional backing, at least in public, for its Red Sea efforts.

Dragon's blood trees on Socotra Island. (Shutterstock/ Zaruba Ondrej)
Reporting | Middle East
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