Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters aboard a military plane en route to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 18, 2017.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters aboard a military plane en route to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 18, 2017. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As the United States considers increasing support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition backing the Yemeni government in a brutal two-year civil war, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted a political process was the only option to break the stalemate.

“Our goal is for that crisis down there [in Yemen] — that ongoing fight — be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible,” Mattis told reporters aboard a military aircraft Tuesday en route to Riyadh. “It has gone on for a long time.”

The return to Saudi Arabia is the first leg of a weeklong tour of nations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. For Mattis, it is a chance to reconnect with kingdom leadership that he worked closely with in the past — including King Salman, who he will visit Wednesday. Mattis, a retired Marine general, spent the final years of his service as the chief of Central Command, responsible for operations throughout the Middle East.

President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing options that could further the military’s involvement in Yemen, where a Saudi-led group has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control from Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.

Mattis on Tuesday declined to discuss specific examples of what the American military could offer to boost the Saudis' campaign.

The United States could increase intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance operations and boost logistical support, including aerial refueling operations, for the Saudis and Emirati troops, but the Americans’ primary focus in Yemen remains al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Pentagon officials have said.

The terrorist group has taken advantage of the ongoing war to carve out areas of ungoverned territory in the country’s southwest to train its fighters and plot attacks against Western targets, according to the Pentagon.

In recent weeks, American drones have launched more than 70 airstrikes against al-Qaida targets that followed the controversial Jan. 28 Navy SEAL raid, which left an American servicemember dead, six others injured and an aircraft destroyed.

While al-Qaida’s presence in the Middle East’s poorest country to Saudi Arabia’s south is a concern for the Saudis, the kingdom considers the Houthis and their Iranian backers the real threat to the region, according to Middle East analysts.

“They feel al-Qaida and [Islamic State] are problems, but they are not the existential threat of Iran,” said Chris Steinitz, a Middle East analyst with Washington think tank CNA.

The Saudi regime is hopeful the Trump administration will be more willing than President Barack Obama to directly challenge Iranian influence through the region.

“Their message is that the core problem in Iran,” Steinitz said. “And to get to that we have to address [President Bashar Assad] in Syria, we have to address the Houthis in Yemen, we have to address Hezbollah in Lebanon, we have to address issues in the government of Iraq. In the Saudi’s minds, you can’t separate all of those issues.”

But support for the Saudis remains a somewhat contentious issue for some lawmakers in the United States.

The UN has estimated the war has killed more than 10,000 people. Last week, a bipartisan group of 54 congressmen sent an open letter to Trump urging him not to provide additional aid to the Saudi coalition.

U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; Justin Amash, R-Mich.; Ted Lieu, D-Calif.; Walter Jones, R-N.C.; and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., spearheaded the plea that accused the Saudi air campaign of “creating a security vacuum that al-Qaida has exploited to expand its base of operations.”

“We therefore urge you to terminate U.S. [military] refueling for Saudi coalition warplanes and end, rather than increase, U.S. logistical assistance for the Saudi-led bombings in Yemen,” the letter read.

But it does not appear the war is likely to end any time soon, said Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“The Houthis are very good fighters, and I don’t think the Saudis are going to defeat them any time soon,” Phillips said. “In fact, I’d be surprised if they ever defeat them, because they don’t have an effective ground force.”

That could be a key factor as Mattis attempts to convince both sides to negotiate for peace, Phillips added.

“This is something, with the number of innocent people dying inside Yemen, that has simply got to be brought to an end,” Mattis said Tuesday. “We will work with our allies, with our partners to try to get it to the UN-brokered negotiating table.”

The defense secretary will continue his trip later this week, visiting with senior leaders in Egypt, Israel, Qatar and Djibouti. The Pentagon has billed the trip, Mattis’ fourth as defense secretary and second to the Middle East region, as an opportunity for him to discuss the ongoing fights against terrorism throughout the region, namely ISIS and al-Qaida. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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