In a surprising move, the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has asked the White House to reverse the Obama Administration policy on restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a prolonged war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Mattis sent a memo to National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and spelled out that the “limited support” for a combined Saudi Arabian, United Arab Emirates offensive geared at retaking a key Red Sea port will help defeat “a common threat”. But Mattis does not foresee adding more Special Operations Forces to the mix.

The administration is in the midst of a larger review of overall Yemen policy that is not expected to be completed until next month.

But the immediate question, addressed by Mattis’ memo and tentatively slated to come before the principal’s 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.

The Pentagon memo does not recommend agreeing to every element of the Emirati request. 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,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning and the review.

Yemen’s population centers have been hit hard during the conflict with an estimated 10,000 civilians killed in the fighting. Worse, the surviving population is close to 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.

The Saudis and other have been withholding aid for the area around Hodeida which has further made a bad situation worse. The Gulf States were critical of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to aid in the Yemen conflict seeing it as a weakness toward Iran. Now President Trump, who was critical of the Obama policy may change it.

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Photo courtesy DOD