Mattis made a two-day trip to the Saudi capital Riyadh. He called for a political solution to the war against the rebel Houthis supported by forces loyal to the former president Saleh. The war has lasted more than two years. However, he also said that military pressure might be needed to help end the conflict. The war began when Houthi rebels from the north backed by Iran and also former president Saleh drove then leader Mansour Hadi from the capital Sanaa in February of 2015. Hadi went into exile in Saudi Arabia. However, a coalition led by the Saudis and supported by many Gulf States, the U.S., the U.K., and Canada have managed to retake much of the south of Yemen including the port of Aden where the former government now is established again. The conflict has not only created a humanitarian disaster with many displaced internally and externally but has allowed the radical Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to thrive and take control of more territory. Athough it has primarily fought against the Houthis often in cooperation with local Sunni tribes it also opposes and has attacked the Hadi government both before the civil war and since.
The U.S. support for the Saudis includes arms sales, refueling of aircraft and supplying intelligence and also cluster bombs. The Saudis have been accused of targeting civilians, and have often hit school and hospitals. Two child advocacy groups, Save the Children and Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict called on the UN to put Saudi Arabia on its list of countries violating child rights. Saudi Arabia was briefly on such a list back in June last year but was quickly removed after pressure on the UN. In March of 2016 the Netherland’s parliament was the first to halt selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. According to the two groups the Saudis had targeted medical facilities and blocked aid from reaching Yemenis. The group also said that numbers severely malnourished in the country had tripled since the conflict began.
Saudi Arabia is contemplating an attack on the port city of Al Hudaydah, controlled by the Houthis, even though this could make the humanitarian situation even worse as much aid comes in through the port. Seventy percent of the country is estimated to be in need of aid. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN coordinator for Yemen said that the port was the only one the UN could use to assist much of the country’s needy population. Mattis did not mention the port while he visited Riyadh. If the Houthis lose the port the Saudis can attempt to starve the Houthis and force the areas they control to submit. A recent article suggests that the US may help the Saudi coalition to capture the port as does another article.
Mattis said when he started talks with bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince: “It is in our interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia. What we can do here today could actually open the door possibly to bringing our president to Saudi Arabia.” One of the steps that the Trump administration might easily take is to lift the freeze on delivery of precision guided bombs to the Saudis. The Obama administration had blocked the transfer last December due to growing concerns of civilian casualties in the war in Yemen. The shipment was worth $390 million. The U.S. could provide more drone and aircraft for reconnaissance missions. An anonymous official claimed that the U.S. would not commit to sending more troops to Yemen.
The U.S. could intensify air operations or boost humanitarian aid but fighting the IS was “our number one concern” according to an American defence official. This makes little sense. The main target of the U.S. drone campaign has been Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula AQAP. The Islamic State is still a minor player in Yemen. Trump has increased the number of drone attacks by 400 percent over Obama who in turn had launched many more attacks than Bush. He also launched a commando attack in Yemen in late January that killed one Navy Seal and a number of civilians. A recent Yemen drone attack is described as killing four suspected Al-Qaeda members.
The U.S. is most concerned about the influence of Iran in the region. Iran supports the rebel Houthis who are Shia. Mattis said: “Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran.” Earlier he said that the U.S. must help the Saudi resistance to Iranian mischief. Everywhere you look in the Middle East where there is trouble you find the U.S. Not just in Yemen but in Bahrain where the US supports the repression of the Shia majority. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted that Iran was upholding its nuclear agreement earlier he said he was concerned about Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also backing groups that strengthen the state of Israel. He also said that Iran was launching cyberattacks. Of course there is no mention of Stuxnet.
There has been opposition to increased U.S. involvement in Yemen in the U.S. Congress. On April 6th four members of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Rand Paul, introduced a bill calling for Trump to block the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia until it was clear that the country was taking steps to avoid civilian deaths and was allowing aid into opposition areas. Also, 31 members of the House of Representatives wrote too Mattis and Tillerson requesting Saudi Arabia to release full details of its bombing plan. On April 11, 55 members of the House wrote to Trump demanding that the U.S. stop refueling Saudi planes. It is unlikely that such demands will be met. There may be some opposition to actions that help out the military-industrial complex while causing civilian deaths but the Saudis are considered strong U.S. allies and arm-makers create jobs.