Mattis Claims U.S. Only 'Watching' Yemen War Despite Supporting Saudi Arabia

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that the American military does not intervene in the brutal civil war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries and the Houthi rebel group, despite growing evidence that suggests otherwise.

Speaking at the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., Mattis fielded questions from reporters alongside U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mattis lamented that the U.S. military is not involved in the civil war in Yemen, but said they are observing the operational decisions of the Yemeni Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel group known as Ansar Allah or the Houthis.

“In Yemen, as a general statement, we stay out of the war ourselves, and we are focused on defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That’s what we do, that’s where we conduct operations,” Mattis said. “We recognize that we are watching a war, in which, the Houthi-led effort involves launching weapons out of residential areas into Saudi Arabia. We recognize the complexity of it.”

The comments by Mattis, a former U.S. Marine Corps general, seem to conflict with recent news reports out of the region that suggest the American military may be expanding its role in the civil war beyond what the Pentagon has previously acknowledged.

Last month, The New York Times reported that U.S. Army Special Forces had been covertly assisting Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen by destroying Houthi-controlled weapons caches and ballistic missile launch sites.

The Times cited multiple U.S. officials and European diplomats that detailed how Green Berets deployed to Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen in December 2017, a month after the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired a Burkan-2 ballistic missile at Riyadh's international airport. There, the special forces soldiers taught Saudi forces how to defend their border and assisted in destroying military hardware controlled by the Houthi rebels. 

The report contradicts previous claims by the Defense Department that lament the American military only supports the coalition by conducting aerial refueling operations and providing intelligence support to coalition partners.

The Times report and the recent discovery by CNN that the bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition in a devastating attack on a school bus earlier this month that killed more than 40 school children was produced by Lockheed Martin and sold as a part of a U.S. State Department-sanctioned arms deal with Saudi Arabia have left many wondering if U.S. officials should curtail its support for the Saudi-led coalition. 

The U.S. began to work with the coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, in 2015. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the top American air commander in the Middle East, urged for more transparency in the investigation surrounding the events of the airstrike last week.

“There’s a level of frustration we need to acknowledge,” Harrigian told The New York Times. “They need to come out and say what occurred there.”

The airstrike on a school bus filled with children occurred in response to a Houthi ballistic missile that targeted the Saudi kingdom's Jizan province, according to Saudi Arabia’s official news agency.

The incident underscores the violent conflict that has locked innocent civilians into a chain of desperation that continues to intensify amid a raging civil war with no end in sight. 

Colonel Turki al-Malki, a spokesman for the coalition, said the missile strike was aimed at a “legitimate target,” according to reporting by CNN. "No, this is not children in the bus," he said. "We do have high standard measures for targeting (sic)."

Mattis told reporters that the battlefield in Yemen is humanitarian and that the Defense Department is constantly reviewing their policies regarding support for the Saudi-led coalition; however, Mattis lamented that the coalition has embraced U.S. concerns.

“For the last several years, we've been working with Saudis and the Emiratis, doing what we can to reduce any chance of innocent people being injured or killed...at no time, did we feel rebuffed or ignored when we bring concerns to them,” Mattis said. “The training we have given them we know has paid off...we recognize that every mistake like this is tragic, in every way, but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we’re working with.” 

The Pentagon has been working with the U.N. envoy in the region to bring a diplomatic end to the civil war. The United Nations has described the conflict as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster as a new report claims Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could be guilty of multiple war crimes, including torture, rape and the use of child soldiers.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said that it would respond once its legal team had fully reviewed the report.

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