US defence secretary James Mattis on Thursday pledged to work with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, saying efforts for a peaceful solution would be increased as part of a plan for stronger regional security.
His comments came as the conflict heads into its fourth year on Sunday, with Saudi Arabia leading a military alliance supporting the Yemen's internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
“We are going to end this war and on positive terms for the people of Yemen, that is the bottom line,” Mr Mattis said as he welcomed the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Pentagon on the fourth day of his visit to the US.
“We must also reinvigorate urgent efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the civil war in Yemen and we support you in this regard.”
He also pledged to work with Riyadh to boost “stability and security” in the region.
Prince Mohammed, who is also the Saudi defence minister, was accompanied to the Pentagon by a large delegation that included defence aides and military generals. Besides the Yemen conflict, the crown prince's talks with Mr Mattis were expected to cover boosting Saudi defence capabilities, joint defence co-operation, Gulf security and countering Iran, and the Qatar dispute.
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But it was the war in Yemen that dominated Mr Mattis’ comments at the start of the meeting.
The defence secretary's remarks follow a trip to Oman and Bahrain 10 days ago during which he discussed the war in Yemen and arms smuggling via Omani sea and land routes to the Iran-backed rebels. Shortly afterwards, the Omani foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah visited Tehran where he discussed the conflict with the leadership in Tehran.
High-level sources following the back channel diplomacy told The National that “Iran has recently signalled through an international party a new willingness to enter negotiations for a political settlement in Yemen”, including “willingness to pressure their allies the Houthis”.
This comes after increased pressure on Iran and its role in the conflict, with US presenting evidence of their military support for the Houthis.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said this week that the Houthis have been increasingly on the defensive and that Riyadh has been consistently committed to reaching a political settlement in Yemen based on UN resolutions and diplomacy now led by the new UN envoy, former British diplomat Martin Griffiths.
“Secretary Mattis’ comments on US determination to help bring the Yemen war to a close will be especially important if they reflect a willingness on the part of the United States government to engage more robustly in efforts to bring the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table,” Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen and vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The National.
He said there was recognition by the US that “there is no military solution to be had”.
Replying to Mr Mattis' remarks, Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia was "working on many things as to combat the threats facing our nations. Especially with the Pentagon."
He said defence co-operation between the two countries had "improved tremendously" during Mr Mattis' time at the Pentagon.
Mr Seche said defence ties “have always been one of the underlying strengths of the bilateral relationship”.
These ties expanded under President Donald Trump, with the US finalising the sale of the THAAD missile defence system and other weaponry to Riyadh.
Receiving Prince Mohammed at the White House on Tuesday, Mr Trump produced charts showing $12.5 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and $20bn pending. These include threat detection Aerostats, Abrams tank upgrades, Multi-Mission Surface Combatant frigates, the THAAD system and other equipment.
Mr Seche said he expected that countering Iran and unifying the Gulf Cooperation Council would also be high on the agenda at the Pentagon meeting.
“Given Secretary Mattis’ well-known interest in presenting a unified front against Iranian interference in regional affairs, the ongoing dispute that pits Qatar against the quartet of nations that includes Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be a topic for discussion.”
Ahead of his visit to the Pentagon, Prince Mohammed held talks with US defence industry executives. The Saudi embassy in Washington said he met the “leadership from Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics companies” on Wednesday. The discussions involved developing technology and growing trade and business ties between the US and the Kingdom, the embassy said.