According to senior Trump administration officials, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Mattis said in a memo this month to national security adviser H.R., “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”
Well, approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.
It would also be a clear and important signal of Trump’s administration to move more aggressively against Iran.
The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies.
White House is in the midst of a larger review of overall Yemen policy that is not expected to be completed until next month.
But the immediate question was, whether to provide support for a proposed UAE-led operation to push the Houthis from the port of Hodeida, through which humanitarian aid and rebel supplies pass.
As a proposal to provide American Special Operations forces on the ground on the Red Sea coast “was not part of the request [Mattis] is making,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning and the review.
So according to this official and several others Mattis and his advisers have asked for removal of President Barack Obama’s prohibitions, which would enable the military to support Emirati operations against the Houthis with surveillance and intelligence, refueling, and operational planning assistance without asking for case-by-case White House approval.
But according to some officials, We can’t judge yet what the [review] results will be.”
Advisers are considering whether direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition would take too many resources away from the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a nascent Islamic State organization in Yemen, the U.S. priority there.
Without knowing whether the Houthis will give in or fight back — including with Iranian-
supplied missiles — there is also concern among U.S. officials that the offensive would further undermine stalemated efforts to negotiate an end to the war and make an already dire humanitarian situation worse.
The Obama administration’s reluctance to take part in the Yemen war was part of Trump’s campaign indictment of his predecessor as “weak” on dealing with Iran, and it led to tensions between the United States and Persian Gulf states.
Trump shares the Sunni gulf states’ antipathy for Obama’s Iran neclear deal, along with their belief that Tehran is the principal driver in the Yemen war, and he has signaled a new approach. In a statement last month condemning Iranian ballistic missile tests, Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, spoke at length about the Iran-Houthi threat and said the administration was “putting Iran on notice.”
With Trump’s selection of Mattis to lead the Pentagon and other Iran hawks at the White House, gulf officials see an opportunity to act jointly against their regional rival.
Saudi Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a spokesman for the gulf coalition, said in a phone interview that “at least now we understand that the government of the United States sees the reality on the ground . . . and that there is a country in the area that wants to use militias and spoil the situation.”
Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington said “Now the U.S., Saudis and the UAE are back on the same page and “We’re getting the support we need.”
Full consideration of Mattis’s proposal, and the overall Yemen review, have been delayed by other national security issues, including a major meeting last week in Washington of the 68-member U.S. coalition against the Islamic State.
The senior administration official said,“we’re afraid the situation” in Yemen may escalate, “and our partners may take action regardless. And we won’t have visibility, and we won’t be in a position to understand what it does to our counterterrorism operations.”