Defense Secretary James Mattis has asked the Trump Administration to lift Obama-era restrictions on US military support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war, according to senior administration officials.
Mattis wrote this month to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster that “limited support” for Saudi Arabia and the UAE — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat” in the Ansar Allah (Houthi) insurgency which controls the Yemeni capital Sana’a and much of the country.
US activity in Yemen concentrated mainly on counter-terrorism operations against Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula, although Washington has provided military supplies and refueling for the warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition.
The Administration is in the midst of a larger review of overall Yemen policy that is not expected to be completed until next month. However, officials have sent signals that they want to confront Iran, which provides political and military support to the Houthis.
In February, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said the Iranians were being “put on notice” over their activities in the region as well as their testing of ballistic missiles.
The Principals Committee of the National Security Council will consider Mattis’s memorandum this week.
A “senior administration official” said some elements of the UAE’s request for support, such as provision of US special forces on the ground, are not among Mattis’s recommendations.
Instead, Mattis and his advisers have asked for removal of prohibitions that would enable the military to support surveillance and intelligence, refueling, and operational planning assistance without asking for case-by-case approval from the White House.
A UAE request for help in attacking the Red Sea port of Hodeida was rejected late last year by the Obama administration, on the grounds that attacks were unlikely to succeed, could worsen the humanitarian situation, and would escalate the war.
The senior Trump Administration official said. “There has been no decision yet as to whether [the restrictions] will be lifted. There is certainly broad disagreement across our government.”
Saudi-led bombing and ground operations have killed an estimated 10,000 civilians. Both the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which controls the sea perimeter around Hodeida, have restricted delivery of aid and other goods flowing through the port to other population centers.
On Wednesday, UN humanitarian officials said millions of Yemenis were on the verge of starvation. Yves Daccord, the Red Cross director general, warned that an extended battle for Hodeida would “put even more pressure on the population”.
Men sift through the rubble of Saudi airstrike on a reception hall that killed at least 140 people in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, October 2016