WASHINGTON — The U.S. is helping Saudi Arabia defend its border with Yemen by providing intelligence from aerial surveillance while Saudi warplanes bomb rebels who have thrown Yemen into chaos, a senior U.S. military officer said Thursday.
The U.S. intelligence is allowing the Saudis to monitor potential security threats to their border, and is giving them a better view of movements inside Yemen by the Houthi rebels, the officer said.
The officer also said the U.S. Central Command has been authorized to provide aerial refueling for Saudi warplanes in support of their bombing campaign against the Houthis, although no refueling missions have been flown yet.
Any U.S. refueling flights would be conducted outside of Yemeni airspace, the officer said.
The officer said the U.S. also has placed a small group of officers in an air operations center in Riyadh to coordinate operations with the Saudi air force.
The officer, who spoke to a small group of reporters at the Pentagon under condition of anonymity, said Saudi ground forces in the vicinity of the Yemen border are postured defensively and not in a way that would suggest they are prepared to invade Yemen.
The Houthi rebels' power grab, combined with nationwide chaos, forced the United States last month to pull out military advisers who were backing the Yemeni military against al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington regards as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida.
The senior U.S. military officer acknowledged that the U.S. pullout has diminished U.S. counterterrorism capabilities against AQAP. But he also said the Houthi rebels' advances have "sidelined" AQAP's plotting of external attacks while it focuses on how to respond to the emergence of an apparent civil war.
The officer also offered a cautious assessment of progress in Iraq against the Islamic State group. He said the U.S. is doubtful, for a variety of reasons, that Iraqi forces will be ready to begin an assault on Mosul, the Islamic State's northern power base, before autumn. He said the U.S. believes the Iraqis will move sooner against the town of Beiji, which is home to an important oil refinery and is along the main supply route from Baghdad to Mosul.