WASHINGTON — The United States must continue to support both military and peace efforts in Yemen in order to burnish anti-terrorist steps critical to protect Americans, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate on Wednesday.
That means working with those who can help, even if they are not “unblemished,” Mattis told senators in a closed session.
“Long-standing relationships guide but do not blind us,” Mattis said, according to his prepared remarks. “Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security, and to our interest in Mid-East stability.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined Mattis at the classified session. It was unclear if CIA Director Gina Haspel, whose presence was sought by some senators, attended the session.
Mattis’ remarks come as some members of the Senate prepared legislation to curtail U.S involvement for the Saudi war effort in Yemen. A vote on the bipartisan measure could come this week.
The measure would trigger the 1973 War Powers Act, which gives Congress authority to force and guide a president’s ability to carry out undeclared military actions overseas. A similar measure failed earlier this year but that was before the humanitarian disaster in Yemen intensified and the Saudi government allegedly carried out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Mattis said a pullback would be counter-productive, as it would weaken U.S support for nascent peace efforts for Yemen and weaken U.S influence on the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes, among other things.
“Pulling back our limited U.S. military support, our weapons sales to our partners, and our protection of the Saudi and Emirati populations would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations,” Mattis said. “It took us too long to get here.”
Mattis’ prepared remarks were given to Pentagon reporters on Wednesday but embargoed until delivered in the closed session. Any responses by Mattis to questions from senators remained private for the time being.
The prime U.S. concern in Yemen is resuming counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS operating in Yemen, Mattis said in his prepared remarks.
“Prior to Yemen’s civil war, the U.S. saw success in our counterterrorism missions, targeting our enemy’s efforts and denying them safe havens in Yemen,” Mattis said in his prepared remarks. “By keeping AQAP on the back foot, one of the FBI’s primary terrorist group threats was prevented from conducting attacks on us despite their clearly stated intent and demonstrated capability.
“Once the civil war broke out, we were forced to withdraw our counterterrorism elements working with Yemeni government forces, and we lost ground as terrorists used the resulting political vacuum to their advantage, expanding their control and plotting further violence against us,” he said.
Mattis said the Pentagon provides the Saudi-led coalition with “intelligence sharing to assist in defending our partners’ territory and populations,” as well as “advice and logistics support.” The Pentagon recently suspended aerial refueling assistance.
“We must maintain our twin requirements of holding those responsible for the (Khashoggi) murder to account, while recognizing the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner,” Mattis said. “We cannot be deflected from using all our influence to end this war for the good of innocent people in trouble, and ultimately the safety of our own people, and this includes our military engagement.”