Speaking in Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called for a political solution in Yemen—but he also left the door open to backing a controversial Arab bombing campaign against Houthi rebels. The New York Times:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called on Wednesday for a political solution in Yemen between Sunni Arabs, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, and Iranian-backed Houthis, but he stopped short of publicly warning America’s Sunni allies against a planned bombing campaign targeting the port city of Al Hudaydah. […]
American officials hinted at additional military and intelligence support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. They said a stepped-up military campaign against the Houthi fighters who have taken over the capital and portions of the country may be necessary to bring the group and its ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, to the negotiating table. […]
American officials acknowledged concern about the effects of a sustained bombing campaign, but they also said both sides would be more likely to compromise after one more military fight.
The headlines are touting Mattis’s support for UN-backed negotiations, but by the sound of it, he still thinks an intensified military campaign might be the way to get there. As we explained this past month, there are good reasons why Mattis would be tempted by that prospect: Helping the Saudis and Emiratis retake Hudaydah could dislodge an Iranian proxy and re-establish credibility with our Sunni Arab allies in one fell swoop. And from a tactical perspective, that objective could theoretically be achieved with minimal U.S. commitment.
Indeed, Buzzfeed confirmed this week that the Defense Department is making this argument behind the scenes, arguing that the Saudi-Emirati campaign to retake Hudaydah could be a “clean,” 4-6 week operation that would put teeth into Trump’s pledge to roll back Iranian influence. That optimistic assessment is being questioned by the State Department and USAID, who are concerned about exacerbating the famine in Yemen. But such dissent may fall on deaf ears given the leeway granted to the Pentagon in the early days of the Trump Administration: Trump has spoken of giving the military “total authorization,” and it is Mattis who has apparently taken the lead both in crafting a Middle East strategy and conducting diplomatic outreach to the Sunni Arab allies estranged during the Obama years.
So far, Mattis has done a capable job, but there are risks to the short-term military thinking that could dominate the decision-making in Yemen. Unconditionally backing the Saudis could lead them to push a limited campaign too far and try to win the war outright, with the humanitarian situation deteriorating in the meantime. And any diplomatic solution will need buy-in and coordination from an understaffed State Department and other agencies that are reportedly resisting the Pentagon’s arguments.
Still, Mattis’s latest comments suggest that he has his eyes on a political endgame, and thinks the United States can play a mediating role in forcing the Saudis and Houthis to make compromises they otherwise would not on their own. If Mattis can pull this off—delivering a credible show of force to Iran while re-establishing U.S. credibility as an indispensable Middle East mediator—his stock within the Administration is likely to rise even higher.