In Yemen conflict, a window into deepening US-Gulf ties

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When US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis greeted Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister at the Pentagon last month, the first thing he did was joke about the time “the Iranians tried to murder you.”

Mattis’ reference to a foiled 2011 plot, denied by Iran, was a telling sign of how much more aligned President Donald Trump’s administration is with Gulf allies about what they perceive to be the Iranian threat, a shift that seems to be setting the stage for greater US involvement in Yemen, in particular.

After long seeking to distance itself from Yemen’s brutal civil war, the United States under Trump now appears increasingly to see the conflict through the Gulf’s prism of Iranian meddling, even as Washington prioritizes a parallel fight against al Qaeda.

Detailed discussions are under way within the Trump administration that would offer greater aid to Gulf allies fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Officials say that could include expanded sharing of US intelligence.

In Saudi Arabia last week, Mattis compared Tehran’s backing for the Houthis to its support for Shi’ite ally Lebanese Hezbollah, a view long espoused by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states who see links between the two groups.

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” Mattis told reporters in Riyadh.

Iran rejects Saudi accusations that it is giving financial and military support to the Houthis in the struggle for Yemen.

Cooperation between the United States and the Gulf is already on the rise in the fight against America’s top priority there: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

US officials see that broader civil war as an obstacle to a sustained military campaign against the militants, as well as a threat to the Bab al-Mandab strait, a strategic waterway.

Iran interference in Yemen

For many US and Gulf observers, the role of Iran is clear in the increasing sophistication of Houthi forces.

The United States launched cruise missiles at Houthi targets last year after a US warship came under fire off Yemen, and a boat laden with explosives rammed a Saudi frigate on January 30.

“These weapons didn’t exist ... before the war. There was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory,” Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan told Reuters in an interview.

Donegan, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, also said ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia had several times the range of missiles the Yemenis had before the conflict.

“When you have a non-nation-state with nation-state-like weapons that can reach into the maritime (area), it has my attention,” Donegan said.

A senior UAE official also compared the Houthis to Hezbollah, and said growing Iranian support had helped shield them from pressure to enter political talks.

“We are seeing UAVs, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, as well as land and sea mines,” the official told Reuters.

Mattis has publicly backed a political solution to the conflict. But US officials have also acknowledged that Saudi-led coalition military pressure could help create the conditions for that negotiated solution.

Still, the Yemeni government and the Gulf-led coalition have been preparing for a possible assault on Hodeidah port, the entry point for nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports, because they say the Houthis use it to smuggle weapons and ammunition.

The Yemeni government has proposed to the United Nations that it monitor Hodeidah.

Trump administration officials have not ruled out US assistance should the coalition move ahead, but US officials said Washington is not considering strikes on Houthi targets or deploying ground forces.

AQAP fight

The United States has carried out more air strikes this year in Yemen than in all of 2016, in a clear sign of growing US concern and focus on AQAP and deepening involvement in Yemen.

US officials acknowledge there is a lot they don’t know. Even the presumption about AQAP’s size, seen in the low thousands, is a very low-confidence estimate.

Beyond things like increasing intelligence sharing, US officials are moving closer to approving a sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia blocked under Obama.

A recent meeting between Trump and Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was dubbed a turning point in relations which had been frosty under Barack Obama.

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