WASHINGTON - US Defence Secretary James Mattis is reported to be pushing for the White House to remove all restrictions, placed during the waning months of President Barack Obama’s presidency, on US military support for the Saudi invasion of Yemen, seeking deeper direct US involvement in fighting the Yemeni Shias.

A recent memo from Mattis to National Security Adviser H.R. ­McMaster, cited in a report by The Washington Post, said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port - would help combat a “common threat.”

Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift, the report said, pointing out that US military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for Persian gulf states’ efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.

It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran, the Post said. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Persian Gulf’s Sunni monarchies. The administration is in the midst of a larger review of overall Yemen policy that is not expected to be completed until next month, it said.

But the immediate question, addressed by Mattis’s memo and tentatively slated to come before the principals committee of senior national security aides this week, is whether to provide support for a proposed UAE-led operation to push the Houthis from the port of Hodeida, through which humanitarian aid and rebel supplies pass, according to the report.

The Pentagon memo does not recommend agreeing to every element of the Emirati request, it was pointed out. A proposal to provide American Special Operations forces on the ground on the Red Sea coast “was not part of the request [Mattis] is making,” an unnamed senior administration official was quoted as saying.

This official and several others said that Mattis and his advisers have asked for removal of President Barack Obama’s prohibitions, which would enable the military to support Emirati operations against the Houthis with surveillance and intelligence, refuelling, and operational planning assistance without asking for case-by-case White House approval.

A similar Emirati proposal for help in attacking Hodeida was rejected late last year by the Obama administration, on the grounds that Emirati ships and warplanes, US Special Operations forces and Yemeni government troops were unlikely to succeed in dislodging the entrenched, well-armed rebels and could worsen the humanitarian situation. The effort was seen as sure to escalate a war that the United States and the United Nations have been trying to stop.

Some advisers to President Trump share those same concerns, the senior official was quoted as saying. “There has been no decision yet as to whether [the restrictions] will be lifted. There is certainly broad disagreement across our government.”

While acknowledging that some might see ending the limits as “a green light for direct involvement in a major war. .?.?. We can’t judge yet what the [review] results will be,” the official said, adding that the limits could be modified, removed or left in place. Advisers are considering whether direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition would take too many resources away from the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a nascent Islamic State network in Yemen, the US priority there. At the same time, what is described as a bare-bones UAE plan has given rise to worry that the Emiratis may not be capable of such a large operation, including holding and stabilizing any reclaimed area, without sucking in US forces, the Post said.

Without knowing whether the Houthis will give in or fight back - including with Iranian-supplied missiles - there is also concern among US officials that the offensive would further undermine stalemated efforts to negotiate an end to the war and make an already dire humanitarian situation worse, it said. Yemen’s population centres have been decimated by the conflict, in which indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes and fighting on the ground have killed an estimated 10,000 civilians.


 Both the Houthis, who hold the capital, Sanaa, Hodeida and other cities, and Saudi Arabia, which controls the sea perimeter around Hodeida, have restricted delivery of aid and other goods flowing through the port to other population centres.

On Wednesday, UN humanitarian officials said that millions of Yemenis were on the verge of starvation. Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, warned that an extended battle for the port city would “put even more pressure on the population” and could tip the country into greater humanitarian crisis.

While the warring parties have taken part in UN-brokered peace talks, negotiations are stalled and all parties remain in practice most interested in battlefield victory, Daccord told The Washington Post. “That’s the problem in Yemen,” he said. “They all still think they can win militarily.”

Trump shares the Sunni Persian gulf states’ antipathy for Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, along with their belief that Tehran is the principal driver in the Yemen war, and he has signaled a new approach, the report said. In a statement last month condemning Iranian ballistic missile tests, Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, spoke at length about the Iran-Houthi threat and said the administration was “putting Iran on notice.”

A senior administration official said at the time that “we assess Iran seeks to leverage this relationship with the Houthis to build a long-term presence in Yemen” and that “we are going to take appropriate action. We are considering a whole range of options.”

Early this month, the State Department approved a resumption of sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. A White House spokesman would not comment on whether Trump had signed off on the sales, saying only that the requisite congressional notification had not yet been made.