Secretary of Defense James Mattis yesterday called upon combatants in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi faction, to negotiate a cease-fire in that war within 30 days while speaking to diplomats, military officers and conflict-resolution specialists at the U.S. Institute of Peace. In a webcast conversation moderated by former national security advisor and USIP Chair Stephen J. Hadley, Mattis also discussed global security challenges facing the United States—from Russia and China, to North Korea—cybersecurity and the need for the developed world to help fragile states improve their governance and address the root causes of extremism.

James Mattis and Stephen Hadley
Secretary of Defense James Mattis and USIP Chair Stephen J. Hadley

Confronting ISIS and Extremism

Asked about extremist threats that breed terrorist violence such as that of ISIS, Mattis said: “In most cases the breeding ground for this is not something that can be addressed by the military. Our general view is that the State Department has to lead, with [US]AID, and we lead with ideas, we lead with the example of our own country, and we work with like-minded nations.”

Following his military retirement and three years at Stanford University, Mattis said, “I believe that U.S. foreign policy had become militarized," and noted his recent years’ appeals for the U.S. budget’s full funding for U.S. diplomacy.

The immediate response to ISIS combatants often must be led by military or police operations, Mattis said. “But the next generation we’re not going to address in a military manner. We’re going to address that one with education and economic opportunity. We have to give people hope, and hope cannot be unilateral anywhere in the world. ... It’s going to have to be multilateral, it’s going to have to be inclusive.” He noted the particular challenge of the Syrian population, saying “I have never seen refugees as traumatized as those coming out of Syria.”

Strengthening ‘Fragile’ States

Hadley asked Mattis whether the United States is doing enough in helping weakly governed, or “fragile” states whose poor governance leads to many of the world’s violent conflicts. Mattis called for better coordination of those efforts within the U.S. government and with America’s allies.

“Are we providing enough in development funds? You know, in Germany … for every dollar that goes into national defense, they have to provide a dollar to development funds,” Mattis said. “In Norway they have very robust efforts to teach good governance and reward it with development money. … It’s a very disciplined process.”

Yemen Peace Talks in Sweden

Yemen's civil war broke out in 2015. A Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, has used largely air power to battle the Houthi faction, which is supported by Iran.

Mattis strongly urged parties to the war to sit down this month in Sweden for talks to be led by the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, British diplomat Martin Griffiths. On the war in the Arabian Peninsula, Mattis said, “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.”

Yemen is one of the world’s deadliest wars, having killed an estimated 25,000 people so far this year. The United Nations last week increased its estimate of the numbers of Yemenis facing famine—to 14 million, up from 11 million, the U.N. chief humanitarian officer said

A key step, Mattis said, is to “talk about demilitarizing the border so that the Saudis and the [United Arab] Emirates do not have to worry about missiles coming into their homes and cities and airports.” A cease-fire arrangement should “ensure that all the missiles that Iran has provided to the Houthis are put under international watch in parks somewhere, where they can be kept accounted for.”

Such a truce would help “set the conditions for [Yemeni factions to] return to traditional areas inside Yemen, and a government that allows for this amount of local autonomy that the Houthis or that southerners want,” Mattis said. The Houthis, who are a Shia sect amid Yemen’s largely Sunni population, and tribes in the south have sought autonomy from the country’s central government in Sanaa, the capital.

"The longer-term solution, and by longer-term, I mean 30 days from now, we want to see everybody sitting around the table, based on a cease-fire, based on a pullback from the border, and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs, that will permit the [U.N.] special envoy—Martin Griffiths, who's very good, he knows what he's doing—to get them together in Sweden and end this war," Mattis said. 

“It’s time to stop this,” Mattis said of the war. “And right now, what the Iranians have done by bringing in anti-ship missiles … it’s interrupted freedom of navigation, they are the ones who keep fueling this conflict and they need to knock it off.”

Yemen’s Civilian Casualties

In August, a United Nations report said the Saudi-led forces have failed to avoid civilian casualties, bombing civilian targets that have included weddings and schools. Mattis said U.S. forces continue to provide technical information and training to Saudi forces, saying “we’ve been holding classes” in an effort to help them avoid civilian casualties. The Saudi air force commander has been “looking his pilots in the eye” to explain the need to avoid civilian losses, he added. Still, Mattis said, any “war is tragedy piled upon tragedy,” stressing the need for an early truce.

USIP analysts have underscored that peacemaking in Yemen will have to focus on the primary, homegrown sources of the conflict, which includes deep tribal and social divisions often overlooked in media coverage of the country. 

Security Challenges: Russia, China

Mattis surveyed what he said are primary security concerns for the United States. “In terms of raw power, right now, I look at Russia,” with its nuclear arsenal and its attacks on Georgia and Ukraine. “In terms of urgency,” he said, the fight against ISIS and other extremists, plus management of the North Korean nuclear tensions are primary.

“In terms of will, clearly, it’s China,” Mattis added. Where Russia seeks to weaken its neighboring states through military, economic and other pressures, “China on the other hand, seems to want some sort of tribute states around them,” he said. “I think that 50 years from now, we will be remembered most for how did we set the conditions for a positive relationship with China.” He added: “We will cooperate where we can … and we will confront them when we must.”

For additional remarks from Mattis on Afghanistan and Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, see below:

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