RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived here Tuesday on the first stop of a week-long tour of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The trip marks the first time he has visited Saudi Arabia as Pentagon chief.
During the trip, Mattis will meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as well as the defense minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud, and the interior minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Mattis said he plans to discuss the security situation in the region and how the United States can “deepen and broaden” its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Mattis also is likely to address U.S. operations against the Islamic State in Syria, defense officials said. In the past, Saudi Arabia has entertained committing some of its own troops to help with the upcoming battle for the terrorist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
Mattis’s trip comes as the Pentagon considers ramping up support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The help probably would come through both U.S. advisers and new arms sales to assist Saudi and Emirati forces for a new offensive in southern Yemen.
When asked by reporters whether the Trump administration has any plans to send additional aid to help Saudi Arabia turn the tide in Yemen’s more than two-year-old civil war, Mattis wouldn’t say.
“Our goal … is for that crisis, the ongoing fight, to be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiation team and try and resolve this politically as soon as possible,” Mattis said. “This is something with the innocent number of people dying inside Yemen that simply has to be brought to an end.”
The U.S. military is conducting counterterrorism operations and airstrikes against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, while a small group of U.S. forces provides limited intelligence and refueling support for the Saudi-led forces fighting the Houthis. Since President Trump took office, strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have increased. Following the Pentagon’s decision to designate parts of Yemen as “areas of active hostilities,” U.S. forces have carried out numerous airstrikes as well as a number of Special Operations Forces ground raids in the country.
While the U.S. military has partnered with parts of the Saudi coalition, such as the United Arab Emirates, to go after al-Qaeda, its support for Saudi forces fighting the Houthi rebels has been far more limited. After a spate of Saudi-led bombings killed dozens of Yemeni civilians in 2016, the Obama administration curbed arms sales and some military support to the Saudis.
In an attempt to take a harder stance on Iran than its predecessor, the Trump administration appears to have warmed to Saudi Arabia’s fight against the Houthis, despite concerns from Human Rights Groups and U.S. lawmakers who have characterized the Saudi bombing campaign as indiscriminate.