US weighs more military aid for Saudis over Yemen war

Mattis says US wants ‘strong’ Saudi Arabia, warns of Yemen ‘Hezbollah’

RIYADH: Saudi King Salman meets US Defense Secretary James Mattis yesterday. – AP

RIYADH: The United States is considering ways to boost military support for the Saudi-led fight against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, believing military pressure is needed to prod the militants into a negotiated end to the conflict, US officials said yesterday. The US already is helping the Saudis by providing intelligence and aerial refueling of their combat aircraft. But the coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, has failed to defeat the rebels known as the Houthis. The rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen in 2014.

International calls for an end to the conflict are intensifying amid rising casualties. Health groups warn the Arab world’s poorest country is on the brink of famine. But the Trump administration is considering how to help the Saudis advance their campaign, according to officials, who briefed reporters on condition they not be quoted by name. The assistance could involve more intelligence support but won’t include a commitment of US ground troops, they said, adding that any moves would reflect the administration’s effort to aggressively counter what it sees as Iran’s malign influence across the region.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who met King Salman and other top Saudi officials Tuesday and yesterday, has complained about Iran sending missiles to the Houthis, who’ve then used them to fire across the Yemen’s border into Saudi Arabia. “Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran,” Mattis said after his meetings yesterday. “So right now what we’re seeing is the nations in the region and others elsewhere trying to checkmate Iran and the amount of disruption and instability they can cause.”

Before visiting Riyadh, Mattis said the administration’s goal in Yemen was to help arrange a United Nations-brokered peace negotiation. A prospective coalition attack on the Houthi-held port of Hoedida, Yemen, has been put off amid concern it would cut off international relief supplies. US officials said yesterday work is underway to determine how to retake Hoedida without hurting aid efforts.

The US and Saudi Arabia have been security allies since 1944. The retired four-star Marine general earlier met King Salman at Al-Yamama Palace in Riyadh, where he told the monarch: “It’s good to be back.” Mattis commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He arrived in the kingdom on Tuesday afternoon to listen to Saudi leaders and learn “what are their priorities”, an American defense official said.

As he met Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, Mattis appeared to allude to deteriorated relations during the Obama administration, which spearheaded a seven-nation nuclear deal with Iran that deeply upset the Saudis. “We can overcome any past frustrations,” Mattis said while US journalists were in the room. “It is in our interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia,” Mattis said at the start of talks, pointing to the country’s “military security services and secret services”. He said the US would “reinforce Saudi Arabia’s resistance to Iran’s mischief” and suggested the possibility of President Donald Trump visiting Saudi Arabia. “We are not leaving this region,” Mattis said.

Prince Mohammed told Mattis that Saudi Arabia and the United States are working to counter challenges in the region, including “the malign activities of Iran” and to bring stability “to the most important straits”. Trump’s Yemen focus has so far been on a major escalation of attacks against militants from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But after talks with Prince Mohammed, Mattis warned of Iranian efforts to create a Yemeni militia “in the image” of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Pentagon officials believe members of the Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are in Yemen to help the Houthis. Hezbollah, a powerful political movement in Lebanon, is fighting alongside government forces in Syria and has been declared a “terrorist organization” by Riyadh. – Agencies

This article was published on 19/04/2017