U.S. Sec Def Speaks with Saudi Counterpart, amid Attacks by Iran-backed Militias

Austin “underscored Iran’s dangerous role" in supporting the Houthis and “his desire to work with all nations" to uphold freedom of navigation and safe passage for shipping.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Saudi Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman attend a Pentagon arrival ceremony (Photo: AP)
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Saudi Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman attend a Pentagon arrival ceremony (Photo: AP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with the Saudi Minister of Defense, Khalid bin Salman.

Their discussion, according to a readout provided by Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, focused on the threats to shipping in the Red Sea posed by the Houthis in Yemen, who are backed by Iran.

Their discussion also followed a rare, one-day visit on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. 

The following day, Putin received Iranian President Ibrahim al-Raisi in Moscow, where Raisi denounced what he called Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinians and the support it receives from the U.S. and other Western powers.

Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

Khalid bin Salman visited Washington a little more than a month ago. On Oct. 30, he met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and on Nov. 1, he met with Austin and later that day, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Bin Salman’s meetings on that trip focused largely on the war in Gaza, which began on Oct. 7, with Hamas’s surprise cross-border assault that killed 1,200 Israelis, while it seized some 240 more Israelis as hostages.

The stage for those meetings was set by an Oct. 24 phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman. The war in Gaza was over two weeks old, and the two parties agreed to coordinate in providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, while working to prevent the conflict from spreading.

Khalid bin Salman is the younger brother of the Crown Prince, and both are sons of the 87 year old king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. The Defense Minister, the youngest of the three, assumed his position only a year ago, in September 2022, and he is just 35 years old. 

In contrast to Bin Salman’s meetings with U.S. officials in late October and early November, the discussion Austin had with him on Thursday focused on the Houthi attacks, which have increased significantly over the past month, with the war in Gaza.

That is not to say that the war in Gaza is the reason for the escalation in such attacks. They began long before. But the war serves as a pretext for those attacks.

A somewhat similar dynamic is also occurring in Iraq and Syria, where Iranian-backed militias have regularly attacked military bases hosting U.S. forces.

As Washington’s highly-regarded Institute for the Study of War summarizes the situation, “Iran and its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East.”

On Thursday, Austin and bin Salman discussed “Houthi threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea,” according to the Pentagon readout of their conversation.

The Biden administration has revealed a plan to address that threat: a multilateral naval task force to accompany and protect commercial ships, as Jake Sullivan explained on Monday.

Read More: U.S. Preempts Militia Attack, as Criticism of Biden’s Iran Policy Mounts

Presumably, this new U.S. initiative was a significant part of the discussion in Austin’s conversation with bin Salman on Thursday.

According to the Pentagon’s readout, Austin “underscored Iran’s dangerous role in advising, arming, and training the Houthis,” while he “conveyed his desire to work with all nations who share an interest in upholding the principle of freedom of navigation and ensuring safe passage for global shipping.”

Iraq, Syria: U.S. Missing Key Point? 

Militias backed by Iran have also increased their attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. However, the Biden administration does not link those attacks to Iran, as it does with Houthi attacks.

Thus, the administration seems to be missing the key point, noted above, made by the Institute for the Study of War: Iran and its proxies are “exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East.”

Responding to journalists questions on Thursday, Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s Deputy Press Secretary, stated that there had been 78 attacks on bases in Iraq and Syria hosting U.S. troops (presumably, she was referring to the period since Oct. 17, which the Pentagon has previously used for the start of its count—although such attacks began long before.) 

Singh described the parties conducting the attacks as “hostile militant groups.” She did not mention Iran or any other party that might be providing them weapons or otherwise supporting them. 

So the administration offers no coherent explanation for why violence has increased in the broader Middle East, as the Israeli-Hamas war grinds on. 

Singh also stated on Thursday that there had been no attacks on U.S. forces in the previous 24 hours, even as she played down the seriousness of the 78 attacks that have occurred, describing them as “largely not successful with minor damage to infrastructure.” 

Critics have complained that by discounting the significance of those attacks and not responding vigorously to them, the administration only invites more.

Indeed, on Friday, yet one more attack occurred, this time targeting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Read More: US urges Iraq to 'protect' its diplomats after rocket attack

Putin’s Rare Visit to Riyadh

It has been widely reported that Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia was a rare visit, one of the few he has made abroad since Russia’s attack on Ukraine began in February 2022. 

Less noted is the rarity of Putin’s trips to Saudi Arabia, which, historically, has been aligned with the U.S. 

Putin last visited Riyadh in 2019. His only previous visit occurred in 2007, when he became the first Russian leader to ever visit the country. 

In October 2019, when Putin visited Riyadh for the second time, the Houthis had been launching missiles on the kingdom. Iran supported the Houthis, as was widely recognized, and the month before, they had attacked Saudi oil facilities.

Putin offered to help the Saudis. He offered to provide Russian air defense systems, as well as to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran.

A similar dynamic may have been at work in Putin’s visit to Riyadh on Wednesday. The Saudis may regard the U.S. response to the aggression of the Houthis, and behind them Tehran, as weak.

That is the view of Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who issued a statement on Monday, affirming that “the Houthis are a threat to Yemen, our partners across the Middle East, U.S. service members and citizens in the region,” as he called on the administration to adopt a much tougher policy toward them and Iran.

In addition, Riyadh may also see the U.S. position toward the attacks by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria as weak. Washington’s response of carefully-measured tit-for-tat attacks does not deter future assaults, while the administration fails to even mention Iran’s role in them, let alone hold Tehran accountable.

Indeed, that is the view of Col. Joe Buccino (U.S. Army, Retired) who served as communications director at CENTCOM. In a recent article, Buccino described the U.S. response to the militia attacks as weak and ineffectual, hitting targets that are relatively insignificant to the party that matters the most: Tehran. 

“Should the U.S. continue to ignore attacks by Iran-aligned groups, a catastrophe may lie ahead,” Buccino warned, arguing, “To restore American deterrence, the U.S. must strike targets Iran holds at value.”

Possibly, that is Riyadh’s view as well, and the Saudis consider it prudent to hedge their bets by maintaining friendly ties with those who have influence in Tehran.