Despite a tougher stand towards Iran on Yemen, US favours a political solution

It is likely that the United States will assist the Saudi-led coalition as much as possible.


2017/05/07 Issue: 105 Page: 5


The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian



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.


Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.


As Printed
MENA Now
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar

Correspondents

Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi

Designers

Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

www.alarab.co.uk

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved