Despite a tougher stand towards Iran on Yemen, US favours a political solution
The Trump administration’s Yemen policy is murky but some trends are becoming discernable.
It seems that US Defence Secretary James Mattis is in charge of formulating the policy. He has become the most influential voice in the Trump administration on national security issues. Although he has reportedly developed a good working relationship with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it is clear that Mattis is the one who calls the shots.
US President Donald Trump is enamoured by strong military leaders and Mattis, as a former Marine Corps general with extensive combat experience and former US Central Command commander, fits the bill. Trump has reportedly given Mattis wide berth to formulate and carry out strategy without checking in with the White House on every detail.
Thus, to figure out US policy on Yemen, one must understand the mindset of Mattis.
Mattis has stated very strong anti-Iran views stemming from his time as a military officer in Iraq more than a decade ago when Iran-supported Iraqi Shia militias targeted US forces under his command. This period in Iraq is said to have left an indelible impression on him. He may also have an even longer view of Iran’s militant opposition to the United States, holding Tehran responsible for the suicide bombing of the US Marine Corps’ barracks in Beirut in 1983, carried out by militant Lebanese Shias.
On his trip to Saudi Arabia in April, Mattis said: “Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.” This statement was not just meant to please his Saudi hosts but appears to be his genuine assessment of the situation in the region.
This assessment is in contrast to the ideas of former US President Barack Obama, who stated in an interview in 2015 that Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to find a way to “share the neighbourhood.” Mattis was reportedly forced out as CENTCOM commander during the Obama administration because his hawkish views on Iran were not in sync with the president’s.
Given extensive reports that Iran has stepped up its military support for the Houthi rebels, it is also not surprising that Mattis sees Yemen as a place to take a stand against Iran.
Although the Obama administration lent support to the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition with intelligence sharing, logistics and air refuelling, it came to view the Saudi-led campaign as a liability because of extensive civilian casualties. In the last half of 2016, the Obama administration reduced the number of US personnel at a “Joint Combined Planning Cell” in Saudi Arabia that was helping the Saudis coordinate the air campaign. It later put on hold plans to provide Riyadh with $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems.
By contrast, the Trump administration, undoubtedly under Mattis’s influence, plans to go forward with that munitions sale and be more aggressive in stopping Iranian shipments of arms to the Houthis.
Such policies fit the administration’s approach of both shoring up relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states and attempting to curtail Iran’s influence in the region.
But Mattis, as a military man, seems to have made an equally important assessment of the Yemen situation. He apparently has come to believe that the Saudi-led war against the entrenched Houthis, who are backed by forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is unwinnable militarily and that the longer the war goes on the more al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) will be able to use Yemen as a base of operations.
This explains Mattis’s comment at a news conference during his Saudi visit: “Our goal is to push this conflict into UN-brokered negotiations to make sure it is ended as soon as possible.”
Getting to this point will take some time, however. In the short term, it is likely that the United States will assist the Saudi-led coalition as much as possible — short of sending in US ground troops. The United States might assist a Saudi bombing campaign against the northern Yemeni port of Hudaydah, which is under Houthi control.
Such assistance would have the dual role of checking Iranian influence and improving the negotiating position of the Saudis and their Yemeni allies in the event UN-sponsored peace talks resume. On the downside, it may exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the country because many food shipments arrive at that port.
Mattis knows from his military experiences that chaotic civil wars provide an ideal situation for terrorists to operate and, even though he sees Iran as a serious threat, he has his eye on areas south-east of the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen where al-Qaeda and ISIS have footholds.