US Defence Secretary James Mattis has arrived in Oman and will meet Sultan Qaboos on Monday, with the pair set to discuss a packed agenda that includes arms trafficking into Yemen, defence relations and counterterrorism.
On his first trip to Oman as Pentagon chief, Mr Mattis said told reporters on Sunday that he would find out from his Omani counterparts "how they assess any trafficking that's going on at all" into Yemen.
Asked by a reporter if Oman is looking the other way, Mr Mattis said the Omanis "have been on the record that they want to see this civil war stopped for obvious reasons".
These reasons, Mr Mattis said, entail counterterrorism and mutual security concerns. “I’m going there to listen, like I started off with, and find out how they assess any trafficking that’s going on at all. What is their assessment? What is their view of routes and that sort of thing?” Mr Mattis said.
“I will be going in to talk to the Sultan, who obviously has a keen role in all of this, because he’s got a border with this country. And so I need to go in and find out how they assess it.”
He also emphasised past and ongoing efforts by French, Australian and US Navy forces in the area to interdict Iranian shipments to the Houthis.
The EU-funded organisation Conflict Armament Research issued a report last Spring that points to Oman as a major route by land and sea for Iran to transfer arms to Houthis.
Also discussing Yemen, Mr Mattis highlighted US-UAE joint operations fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL in Yemen. He said a small number of US forces in Yemen are working alongside their UAE counterparts fighting against AQAP.
“For example, Mukalla port was held by AQAP for a year, and the United Arab Emirates, with some American help – intelligence help principally – had gone in, organised the local tribes to take it away and Mukalla port fell in 36 hours after being held for a year,” Mr Mattis said.
His trip to Oman and on to Bahrain will also focus on the Gulf's cohesion and maintaining stability in the region. The "unity of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] has been strained, to put it mildly, and so I'm also wanting to hear what the sultan says can be done about that situation," he said, as the Trump government intensifies its efforts to resolve the Qatar crisis.
Retired general Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tim Lenderking visited the region last week to resume US direct mediation.
Addressing his stop in Bahrain, Mr Mattis said he would be meeting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to "reinforce a very strong defence partnership". Bahrain hosts the US 5th Fleet and has a strong military relations with the United States.
Speaking generally about Russia, Mr Mattis dismissed President Vladimir Putin’s talk about improved nuclear capability earlier this month. “I would just tell you that I saw no change to the Russian military capability ... each of these systems that he’s talking about that are still years away – I do not see them changing the military balance.”
Mr Mattis warned Russia about its role in Syria amid potential evidence emerging about the use of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas in eastern Ghouta.
He said: “I look down separately at what’s going on in eastern Ghouta, seems kind of familiar ... Russia signs up with the UN Security Council for a ceasefire, their partner proceeds to bomb, at best, indiscriminately – at worst, targeting hospitals.” He called Moscow either “incompetent or they’re committing illegal acts, or both”.
While making it clear that the US does not have damning evidence for chlorine gas use in Ghouta, which has reportedly occured four times this year, Mr Mattis said: “I am aware of the reports of chlorine gas use, and of the bombings that we’re seeing now.” He called it “a sickening replay of what we’ve seen before, in Aleppo for example, and before that in Homs”.
Mr Mattis refused to take any options off the table or to strictly define the Trump government's line for chemical weapons use in Syria. He warned, however, “it would be very unwise for them to use weaponised gas. And I think president Trump made that very clear early in his administration”.
The National has learned of coordinated US-EU efforts to gather evidence on the use of chlorine gas by the Assad regime recently in eastern Ghouta. High-level sources in Washington revealed that the Trump government is considering a whole set of options, including military strikes in Syria, if such evidence is found.
A turning point in the government’s thinking and Mr Trump’s own views on Russia’s role in the war was triggered by Mr Putin’s threats on March 1 in a video showing missiles raining down on Florida.
Those sources said no final decision had been made yet, but co-ordination had started with the Europeans on gathering evidence on the reported attacks so far this year. The change in the US and European governments' view on Moscow was also prompted by Russia breaking its commitments under UNSCR 2401 for a ceasefire in Syria that was adopted on February 24.
The Russian government voted for the resolution, only to violate it in the skies above Syria over Ghouta within hours. "This further shows Vladimir Putin's disregard for international law," a source with close knowledge of US-EU consultations told The National.
Mr Trump has called the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom and France four times since Mr Putin’s speech to discuss the situation in Ghouta, and other issues.