Mattis on Iran’s Role in Yemen, Syria

November 2, 2018

On October 30, Secretary of Defense James Mattis criticized Iran’s role in fueling the conflict in Yemen. He also called for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days. “Yemen has had more problems than any people deserve to carry, and we're calling on all the parties, specifically the Houthis and the Arab Coalition, to meet in Sweden in November, and come to a solution,” he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). The Houthis, who have been fighting Yemen’s government since 2004, have reportedly received military support from Iran. “And right now what the Iranians have done by bringing in any ship, missiles and this sort of thing has interrupted freedom of navigation. They are the ones who keep fueling this conflict and they need to knock it off,” said Mattis during a webcast conversation moderated by former national security advisor and USIP Chair Stephen J. Hadley.

Mattis also criticized Tehran for “wasting a lot resources” on supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad. “This is a senseless war for the Iranian people, to be in Syria or to be trying to make Iraq into a rump state of Tehran,” he said. The following are excerpted remarks on Iran, Yemen and Syria. 

 

On Yemen

SEC. MATTIS:  Yemen has had more problems than any people deserve to carry, and we're calling on all the parties, specifically the Houthis and the Arab Coalition, to meet in Sweden in November, and come to a solution. 

Not talk about subordinate issues, about what town they're going to meet in or what size table is they meet around, but talk about demilitarizing the border so that the Saudis and the Emirates do not have to worry about missiles coming into their -- their -- their homes, and cities, and airports.  

And ensure that all the missiles that Iran has provided to the Houthis are put under international watch and -- and -- and parked somewhere where they can be accounted for, that sort of thing, as we set the conditions for a return to traditional areas inside Yemen and a government that allows for this amount of local autonomy that Houthis or that southerners want.

This -- this has got to end, we've got to replace combat with compromise, and we are working as we speak with Mr. Martin Griffiths, the U.N. Special Envoy.  To -- I've met with him myself; Secretary Pompeo is talking to him frequently as we try to amass the international support.  We just met in -- in Manama, in the Manama dialogues, and this was brought up forcefully, not just by myself, but by others as well that it's time to stop this.

And right now what the Iranians have done by bringing in any ship, missiles and this sort of thing has interrupted freedom of navigation.  They are the ones who keep fueling this conflict and they need to knock it off.  They may do it through proxies as they do so often in the Middle East, but they do not escape accountability for what they're doing through proxies and surrogate forces.  We still will hold them accountable.

 

On Syria, Iraq and Countering Iran

SEC. MATTIS:  I have never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria, not even close.  If it were not for Russia's regrettable vetoes in the United Nations that marginalized the U.N., I think we would never have gotten to this point. 

And certainly if it wasn't for the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people, the Iranian regime giving full support to Assad, he would have been long gone.  And when that support was not even sufficient and Mr. Putin came in, we see the reason that I think eventually Assad will have to be managed out of power. 

I don't think any election run under the auspices of the -- of the Syrian regime is going to have any credibility with either the Syrian people or with the international community.  But what have we learned along the way?

One point I would make is it has been a partner, a non-state partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, about 50/50 now between Kurd and Arab that has done the bulk of the fighting in Syria. 

Remember that at the same time, the Iraqi Security Forces and popular militias were fighting in Iraq.  When we came into office with the administration, we reviewed the situation and determined that we would have to change what was going on.

I had gone early to NATO and sat down there in Brussels with my counterparts talking about a host of issues in Syria, Iraq and ISIS loomed large.  And it was clear the foreign fighters returning home with the veneer of civilization long rubbed off them were going to be a strategic assault basically on our European partners and other parts of the world, Africa, Southeast Asia, that sort of thing.

So we changed the tactics from what I would call a Christian warfare where you push them out of one place and they fall back then you push them out of that place.  We took the time to surround West Mosul, Tabqah, Tal Afar, Raqqa, surround it first and then move against it. 

And trying to get the civilians out of the way, the non-combatants, the innocent out of the way because every battlefield we're in over there is also a humanitarian field.  We were not always successful at that, remember we're up against an enemy that is merciless and used in many cases the -- the locals, the innocents as shields.

And we did our best to avoid those deaths, but some of them as a consequence of war were more than we ever wanted to see happen, but it was part of the fight.  As we moved against them and they're now down to less than two percent of the ground they own, we can see that the most important effort is the sustaining. 

In other words, after we go through and we push them out of the area, you must immediately create local security forces in order to hold the ground and then get locals back into positions, community councils, so that locals feel like they're now in control.  The international community has actually been very helpful.  We do have the money to help the people who are trying to recover, but it's just emergency services inside Syria. 

Inside Iraq, where we have a government and they did go through an election, as you're aware -- they're putting a government together -- there, we have a government that we can support. 

In Syria, we have to support the locals and then we're going to have to work through the Geneva process to -- to make a way forward for Syria. 

We are committed to it.  Russia's best efforts to divert it into Astana Process or Sochi have not produced anything worthwhile.  And so we're calling on Russia to support the U.N. Geneva process and Staffan de Mistura's efforts there.  

Will they do it?  I think eventually, it's in Russia's best interests that Syria not be the cauldron of violence that it is now.  So we're going to keep pressing on it, supporting the U.N. in their effort. 

MR. HADLEY:  Let me ask you a related question.  There's been a lot of discussion about Iran wanting to create an arc of influence, if you will, from Tehran all the way to Beirut.  And the possibilities that that could be disrupted in Iraq, and particularly Syria.  

Could you say a little bit about what we're doing to counter Iranian influence in Syria, and to frustrate their ability to establish this kind of strategic arc? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Our authority to be in Syria right now is clearly on the Defeat ISIS Campaign.  That is the authority I have from the president, that's the authority of the Congress under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.  And that is the only specific military purpose that we're undertaking there.

Now at the same time, Secretary of State Pompeo -- taking the lead, as he should, in something like this -- had doubled the number of diplomats in the liberated parts of Syria. 

Brett McGurk has been magnificent at orchestrating the international coalition, including the funding for the emergency services.  And that is -- continues to go on. 

Now, will that in itself, by getting the locals empowered to represent their own communities, to defend their own communities against a return of ISIS, in itself stop the Iranian influence?  No, it will not.  

But that is where the Geneva process comes in, to say, "Iran, you have no business in Syria.  You've not been helpful there.  Your militia that is destabilizing in Lebanon against the government, the Lebanese Hezbollah and their fighters inside Syria, and ones like that, need to get out of Syria if we're going to have peace."

Inside Iraq, I think it's a matter of -- of United States and NATO Training Mission-Iraq, a NATO element that's going to make Iraqi military something that stands up for Iraq and is not reliant on the -- on the goodwill of the -- of the Tehran regime. 

Again, this is not a contest with the Iranian people.  This is a senseless war for the Iranian people, to be in Syria or to be trying to make Iraq into a rump state of Tehran.  It's not going to work, and it's just wasting a lot of the resources that would help the people in -- in Iran, if that was not a revolutionary regime, if it was really a government that cared about its people. 

So it's -- it's more about the long-term view than anything we're going to do with the U.S. military, to rebuff the -- the Iranian influence in those places.  That is best led by diplomats and political leaders who represent their own people, and our diplomats and the international community supporting them. 

Click here for a full transcript of the conversation.