US considers supporting Saudi-led coalition plan to capture Yemen port

Senior officials say it is part of a new stance adopted by US president Donald Trump’s administration to deepen ties with partners in the Middle East, reports Rob Crilly

US defence secretary James Mattis watches president Donald Trump as he speaks during a meeting with Medal of Honor recipients in the Oval Office on March 24, 2017. Carlos Barria / Reuters
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New York // The Pentagon is considering throwing its weight behind an Arab military plan to capture a Red Sea port in Yemen as part of a move to step up its support for the Saudi-led coalition that has fought a two-year war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Senior officials said it was part of a new stance adopted by US president Donald Trump’s administration to deepen ties with partners in the Middle East.

James Mattis, the US defence secretary, has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on American military support to the coalition – which includes the UAE – saying it would help combat a “common threat”, according to The Washington Post.

Such a move would mark a shift in US policy in Yemen which has been limited to counter-terrorism operations. At the same time it would demonstrate a more aggressive posture towards Iranian ambitions across the region.

Senior Trump administration officials have set out a vision of working more closely with partners in the Middle East. They have criticised former US president Barack Obama for tight controls he placed on supplying arms and training.

Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to Mr Trump, said the administration wanted to ensure partners were better able to fight their own wars.

"We are serious about the livelihoods and futures of our partners in the Middle East, whether it is Israel or Jordan, whether it is the Emirates or Egypt," he told The National earlier this month.

“We are going to allow them – with our help – to do what needs to be done. Only some of that will be about weapons. This is about friendship and commitment.”

Last week the United Nations said at least 4,773 civilians had died in a conflict that pits the Houthi rebels against the coalition fighting to restore the internationally-recognised government of Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

Gen Mattis’s memo to the White House addresses whether to provide support for the coalition’s plan to seize the port of Hodeidah in southwestern Yemen. It is crucial to the delivery of humanitarian aid in a country where 60 per cent of the population is at risk of starvation, according to the UN, and its capture would choke off rebel supplies.

Although Gen Mattis’s request does not include the provision of special forces, it would reportedly allow US military support to coalition operations in the form of surveillance, intelligence and refuelling capabilities.

A similar request last year was rejected on the grounds that the rebels had tight control of Hodeidah and any effort to dislodge them might worsen the humanitarian situation, according to The Washington Post.

Already the Trump White House has signalled its change in course. The State Department recently approved the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in a deal worth about US$390 million (Dh1.43 billion), reversing a decision last year to halt supplies over concerns about civilian casualties.

Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at New York-based think tank the Century Foundation, said that if the United States increased its engagement in the Yemeni war, Iran would follow suit.

“The Houthis aren’t a proxy – they aren’t Hizbollah – but they do get training and support from the Iranians and that support has deepened and grown as the conflict has escalated,” he said.

In recent weeks reports have circulated suggesting that Iran is stepping up its role in the conflict, sending additional arms supplies and other support to the Houthi movement.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters: “Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.”