White House looks at stepping up military role in Yemen

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  • The proposal is part of the overall military plan to counter ISIS
  • The move would have significant implications for the US military posture on Iran

Washington (CNN)The Trump Administration is expected to decide as soon as this week on a plan to increase US military involvement in Yemen's civil war.

The proposal calls for stepping up military assistance to support Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have toppled the central government there. The move would have significant implications for the US military posture on Iran, while Yemen is a key location for a top al Qaeda affiliate.
The proposal is part of the overall military plan to counter ISIS being reviewed by the White House, a US defense official said. But in contrast to other parts of the strategy, increased US support to the Saudis and UAE in Yemen could be interpreted by Iran as the beginning of a Trump administration effort to build an anti-Iranian military coalition, the official acknowledged.
The defense official noted that if Iran perceives US assistance to Tehran's foes in Yemen as an anti-Iranian move, it could hurt US efforts to fight ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq, where pro-Iranian militias have until now largely stayed away from interfering with US efforts.
The White House and Pentagon have not publicly indicated that they are trying to build an anti-Iranian coalition, although Defense Secretary James Mattis is known to be determined to curb Iran's influence.
The most immediate decision for the White House and Pentagon is whether to provide the UAE with intelligence and air refueling in their upcoming efforts to stage an amphibious assault on the Yemeni coastline to retake key areas.
Ongoing Emirati military operations inside Yemen have provided the US with intelligence about what is happening inside the country and with intelligence about the al Qaeda affiliate there, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The US has provided similar assistance in the past but has come under criticism in the international community due to the high level of civilian casualties the Gulf efforts in Yemen have caused.
The proposed assistance does not include putting US military forces on the ground in this operation, the official said.
However, US Special Operations Forces continue to move in and out of Yemen in small teams to gather intelligence, several defense officials confirmed, in part from the Emiratis.
Officials would not confirm whether intelligence gathered inside Yemen played a role in the recent decision to ban consumer electronic devices in airline passenger cabins, but three defense officials in recent days have told CNN that the ban was largely centered around fresh intelligence concerns that AQAP had progressed in its efforts to design and manufacture explosive devices that could not be detected by airport screening technology.
Those three officials have told CNN that the intelligence leading to the decision to ban electronics was specific, credible and reliable. The potential threat "was near-term enough" to warrant the ban, one official said. Another described it as "very serious."
The intelligence the US gleaned was a "factual assessment" of specific information and not a generic view by intelligence analysts, the officials said.
One effort AQAP is believed to be working on has been replacing batteries in electronic devices with those filled with explosives. If the devices went through airport screening, they would still show the same density as legitimate batteries and therefore be difficult to detect.