US administration weighs deeper involvement in Yemen war

WP- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to senior Trump administration officials.

In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.

It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies.

The administration is in the midst of a larger review of overall Yemen policy that is not expected to be completed until next month.

But the immediate question, addressed by Mattis’s memo and tentatively slated to come before the principals committee of senior national security aides this week, is whether to provide support for a proposed UAE-led operation to push the Houthis from the port of Hodeida, through which humanitarian aid and rebel supplies pass.

The Pentagon memo does not recommend agreeing to every element of the Emirati request. A proposal to provide American Special Operations forces on the ground on the Red Sea coast “was not part of the request [Mattis] is making,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning and the review.

This official and several others said that Mattis and his advisers have asked for removal of President Barack Obama’s prohibitions, which would enable the military to support Emirati operations against the Houthis with surveillance and intelligence, refueling, and operational planning assistance without asking for case-by-case White House approval.

A similar Emirati proposal for help in attacking Hodeida was rejected late last year by the Obama administration, on the grounds that Emirati ships and warplanes, U.S. Special Operations forces and Yemeni government troops were unlikely to succeed in dislodging the entrenched, well-armed rebels and could worsen the humanitarian situation. The effort was seen as sure to escalate a war that the United States and the United Nations have been trying to stop.

Some advisers to President Trump share those same concerns, the senior official said. “There has been no decision yet as to whether [the restrictions] will be lifted. There is certainly broad disagreement across our government.”

While acknowledging that some might see ending the limits as “a green light for direct involvement in a major war. . . . We can’t judge yet what the [review] results will be,” the official said, adding that the limits could be modified, removed or left in place.

Advisers are considering whether direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition would take too many resources away from the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a nascent Islamic State organization in Yemen, the U.S. priority there.

At the same time, what is described as a bare-bones UAE plan has given rise to worry that the Emiratis may not be capable of such a large operation, including holding and stabilizing any reclaimed area, without sucking in U.S. forces.

Without knowing whether the Houthis will give in or fight back — including with Iranian-
supplied missiles — there is also concern among U.S. officials that the offensive would further undermine stalemated efforts to negotiate an end to the war and make an already dire humanitarian situation worse.

Yemen’s population centers have been decimated by the conflict, in which indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes and fighting on the ground have killed an estimated 10,000 civilians. Both the Houthis, who hold the capital, Sanaa, Hodeida and other cities, 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, U.N. humanitarian officials said that millions of Yemenis were on the verge of starvation. Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, warned that an extended battle for the port city would “put even more pressure on the population” and could tip the country into greater humanitarian crisis.

While the warring parties have taken part in U.N.-brokered peace talks, negotiations are stalled and all parties remain in practice most interested in battlefield victory, Daccord said in an interview. “That’s the problem in Yemen,” he said. “They all still think they can win militarily.”

Gulf nations see Hodeida as a vital asset for the Houthis and a lifeline to their backers in Iran.

A plan developed by the U.S. Central Command to assist the operation includes other elements that are not part of Mattis’s request, officials said. While Marine Corps ships have been off the coast of Yemen for about a year, it was not clear what support role they might play.

The Obama administration’s reluctance to take part in the Yemen war was part of Trump’s campaign indictment of his predecessor as “weak” on dealing with Iran, and it led to tensions between the United States and Persian Gulf states.

Obama provided limited support for the Saudi and Emirati operations, selling them weapons and refueling their aircraft. But dismay over reports of Saudi pilots’ repeated strikes on hospitals, schools and other soft targets prompted his administration to distance itself from the Houthi campaign and impose restrictions. Administration lawyers also raised concerns about U.S. legal responsibility for acts committed by the Saudi-led gulf coalition.

[Trump administration looks to resume Saudi arms sale criticized as endangering civilians in Yemen]

Late last year, in response to a particularly gruesome strike, the Obama administration further scaled back support to the air campaign and froze the sale of certain munitions to Riyadh.

For their part, gulf leaders complained that Obama was pushing them to wrap up the war quickly while withholding support they saw as crucial to pushing the Houthis to the negotiating table.

“My own view is that we should be encouraging the government and the coalition not to undertake offensive actions with the single exception if they can get Hodeida” to relieve the humanitarian crisis, said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

But April Longley Alley, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, warned that the offensive could intensify Yemenis’ suffering and prolong the negotiations stalemate.

“It’s a tragic situation for Yemen, and one that could backfire on the coalition,” Alley said.


Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report (WP)