- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2017

A top military general from Saudi Arabia says Riyadh has secured a commitment from the Trump administration to significantly increase U.S. intelligence sharing and defense cooperation against Iran-backed proxy militias and other Iranian meddling across the the Middle East.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri made the claim to a small group of reporters in Washington Friday, asserting that Defense Secretary James Mattis and other administration officials, who met with a Saudi delegation at the Pentagon this week, had vowed to “increase the cooperation” on a range of fronts to counter Iran.

The general, who is an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition currently battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, said the commitment would restore ties between Washington and Riyadh following a “hiccup” in the relations that occurred during the final months of the Obama administration.

His comments came on a week that saw President Trump host Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House — and roughly two weeks after the State Department approved a major weapons sale to Riyadh that President Obama had blocked last year over human rights concerns in the Yemen campaign.

The Saudis launched their military intervention in Yemen in 2015 with backing from a coalition of predominantly Arab powers, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and others.

While Riyadh’s stated goal was to restore Yemen’s government, which had been ousted by rebels, the conflict has morphed over the past two years into what analysts describe as a proxy war between the Middle East’s leading Sunni Muslim monarchy and its main regional rival, the Shiite powerhouse of Iran.

U.S. backing for the Saudi-led campaign, meanwhile, was a point of contention for the Obama administration, which tacitly supported the Saudis all while pushing through a major international nuclear accord that world powers reached with Iran in 2015.

With that as a backdrop, The Washington Times first reported last month that the Trump administration was moving toward approving the more than $300 million package of precision-guided missile technology for Riyadh that President Obama had spiked during his final months in office amid claims that the Saudis had indiscriminately bombed civilians in Yemen.

Saudi fighter jets hit a funeral in the war-torn nation last fall, killing as many as 140 people, and the United Nations has estimated that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for some 60 percent of nearly 3,800 Yemeni civilians killed between March 2015 and August of 2016.

Gen. al-Asiri pushed back Friday against the characterization that Saudi bombing raids in Yemen have resulted in human rights abuses. He declined to say how many bombs the Saudi-led coalition has dropped in Yemen, but said “more than 90,000 sorties” have been flown in the conflict.

The general asserted that Washington is not directly involved in the Saudi-led campaign, but rather that U.S. forces are focused their own counterterrorism and drone operations targeting Islamic State and al Qaeda groups active in Yemen.

However, he suggested that the Trump administration’s assurances to the Saudi delegation in Washington this week meant U.S. intelligence and military assets will soon be shifting increasingly toward supporting Riyadh against Iranian activities across the Middle East.

“We are on the front line, facing the bad behavior of the Iranians in the area,” Gen. al-Asiri said. “You have a country openly smuggling weapons to militias and terrorist groups and there is no consequences [under] international law.”

“We have to do something against this,” he said, arguing that more U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the best interest of both nations.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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