US to step up support for Saudis, says Pentagon chief

US to step up support for Saudis, says Pentagon chief
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The Trump administration is weighing providing additional support for the Saudi-led fight in Yemen amid mounting speculation about specific military steps the U.S. may take in the battle against Iranian-backed rebels.

But such a move could receive blowback on Capitol Hill, where members of both parties have called for the administration to provide a more detailed strategy on conflicts such as in Syria and have expressed doubts about assisting Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Defense Secretary James Mattis all but pledged additional support for the Saudi-led fight in Yemen this week.

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"We will have to overcome Iran's efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah, but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it," Mattis told reporters in Riyadh after meeting senior Saudi officials.

Mattis did not commit to any specific action in the fight, but U.S. officials told Reuters that the meeting included discussions about additional assistance for the Saudi-led coalition, including potential intelligence support, while U.S. troops were off the table.

The comments come as the Trump administration considers increasing support to the coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, which began in March 2015 and includes the Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

More than 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the war, and millions of Yemenis also face potential famine.

The U.S. has supported the campaign since 2015 by selling the Saudis billions of dollars of weapons, providing intelligence and helping with logistics such as air refueling, but the Obama administration looked to scale back the aid last year.

Now reports indicate that President Trump wants to re-up the aid, focusing on an offensive on a key port held by rebels in Yemen.

The administration has also said it will allow arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner Bahrain that were previously held up under former President Obama, according to media reports.

“Nobody wants four more years of the last eight years of U.S. policy. Nobody expects the U.S. to be as muscular in the region as it was under [President George W. Bush], but they all want presence, they want to put Iran back in the box and they want to get rid of ISIS and al Qaeda,” said James Carafano, a foreign and defense policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“They can do what Obama did and walk away, they can do what Bush did and try to shape the region, or they can do what this is, persistent presence, ‘We’re going to be there and we’re going to work with you.’ It’s not like they have a whole lot of choices," added Carafano, who was a member of Trump's transition team.

The move is still likely to receive pushback from lawmakers who have already expressed doubts about helping the Saudis in Yemen.

In a letter sent earlier this month, 55 House lawmakers asked Trump to end the U.S. logistics assistance. The mostly Democratic group of lawmakers told Trump to get congressional approval if he wants to expand U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war amid renewed calls for Congress to authorize military actions after Trump ordered a missile strike in Syria.

Senators also announced legislation this month that would require the president to certify that Saudi Arabia is meeting certain conditions before finalizing future arms sales to the country.

“The United States has no business supplying a military that targets civilians or enables terrorist groups to thrive, but that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in Yemen,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

“The Saudis are important partners in the Middle East, but they have continued to disregard our advice when it comes to target selection and civilian protection.”

Adding to U.S. commitments overseas, Mattis on Thursday also vowed that the United States will aid Egypt in its battle against terrorism, primarily ISIS, according to Stars and Stripes.

"We agreed on the need for a renewed and strong security partnership, as the new administration comes in,” Mattis said of his discussions Thursday in the Egyptian capital with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Defense Minister Gen. Sedki Sobhy.

Mattis said he "left Cairo very confident, very confident in the avenues we have to advance our military-to-military relationship, which has been a bedrock and has stood solid all these years.”

Mattis did not say what kind of assistance the U.S. would provide Egypt for its fight against ISIS. U.S. officials told Stars and Stripes that no specific commitments were made.

The vow is another shift from the Obama administration, which had strained relations with Egypt over human rights issues.

Carafano argued that Congress is not likely to reject the commitments to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as a whole.

“There’s always elements within the Congress that have different views on different countries, but there isn’t a bipartisan consensus on any of these guys — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt,” he said.

“Other than serial human rights abusers like Syria and Iran, I don’t think there’s a momentum or consensus to really push back.”