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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Mattis says US support continues in Yemen but ‘not unconditional’

US defence chief not confident about splitting Iran from Russia in Syria

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has defended Washington's role behind the Saudi coalition in the war in Yemen, saying its aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Reuters
US Defence Secretary James Mattis has defended Washington's role behind the Saudi coalition in the war in Yemen, saying its aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Reuters

United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis defended Washington’s role behind the Saudi coalition in the war in Yemen, linking it to measures limiting the death toll and commitment to a political solution.

Speaking at a press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Mr Mattis argued that US support in the form of aerial fuelling and intelligence, including targeting help and military advice, has helped in reducing civilian casualties.

"For the last several years we have been working with the Saudis and the Emiratis, doing what we can to reduce any chance of innocent people being injured or killed,” he said.

This support was under review when president Donald Trump came to office, Mr Mattis explained.

“We determined that it was the right thing to do to support them in the defence of their own countries, but also to restore the rightful government there."

Mr Mattis credited the US role to a decline in casualties in Yemen. “The training that we have given them, we know has paid off. We have had pilots in the air who recognise the danger of a specific mission and decline to drop, even when they get the authority,” he said.

But such support “is not unconditional”, and is constantly under review, the US defence chief said.

Mr Mattis stressed that the US has “not seen any callous disregard by the people we're working with”.

He said: "We recognise that we are watching a war in which the Houthi-led effort involves launching weapons out of residential areas into Saudi Arabia”.

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Read more:

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On Iran, Mr Mattis reiterated the Trump administration’s hawkish line against Tehran’s regional activities.

“Iran has been put on notice that the continued mischief they've caused around the area, the murder that they have caused … what they’re doing with [Bashar] Assad, the threats about the Straits of Hormuz, the support to the Houthis with the missiles that are being fired into Saudi Arabia … this is not tolerated by us, and they're going to be held to account for it."

Amid reports that the US is seeking to split Russia from Iran in Syria, Mr Mattis did not sound hopeful about such prospects.

“Our goal is to move the Syria civil war into the Geneva process so the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them, with overt Russian and Iranian support.”

He said convincing Russia to do so is still “a challenge”.

Mr Mattis rejected proposals led by Erik Prince, the founder of security contractor Blackwater (now renamed Academi), to privatise the war in Afghanistan.

“When Americans put their nation's credibility on the line, privatising it is probably not a wise idea,” he said.