The top US defense official will make “very clear” that Washington remains committed to the Middle East and its strategic partnership with countries in the region, the Pentagon said.
Speaking ahead of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, a senior defense official told reporters that ties with Middle East countries were more than a US force presence.
“This is a strategic partnership, and it is more than a US force presence… US commitment is more than posture,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Austin will highlight that the US still has “tens of thousands” of forces on many bases across the region, including Bahrain.
Just landed in Bahrain, where I’m looking forward to speaking at the Manama Dialogue and meeting with a host of international and regional officials to discuss shared priorities and challenges in the Middle East. pic.twitter.com/X526FpnjLl— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) November 19, 2021
“More broadly, he will talk about our efforts to keep US forces in Iraq and Syria where ISIS no longer holds territory but is not defeated. Our resolve to maintain forces there is part of our mission to help them fight ISIS,” the official said.
The US defense secretary is also planning to lay out the different threats that the US and regional countries share in common.
This includes the use of drones by Iran and Tehran’s malign activities at sea. “He [Austin] will call for more cooperation, more sharing of defense, more engagement on a multilateral level to challenge and address… the challenges of the 21st century,” the official said.
There will not be any new agreements on specific mechanisms to deal with Iran or confront its malign activity, but confronting Iran is more than pushing back on Iranian force, the official said.
“It requires whole of government partnerships in the Middle East.”
Citing multiple US officials currently in the region to consult on Iran, the senior defense official said “there is an intense desire to discuss Iran and other issues.”
Washington has no plans to leave Iraq, and its commitment to remain in the country was based on an agreement that troops would advise and assist Iraqi troops.
The combat troops would no longer be present in Iraq by the end of the year, and “we are on track being faithful to that commitment and will adhere to it.”
However, the official said, Iraqis still require support from the US and advice on how to counter ISIS and no changes or requests have been made.
“Now, I think there are certain spoilers and adversaries who are going to exploit this and attempt to make it something different,” the official said about Iran-backed militias.
“The US forces are there to advise and assist the Iraqi security forces; they will not be there for a combat role. It means that US forces are still going to be there next year. This is an evolution in mission,” the official said.
The official praised the Lebanese Armed Forces for continuing to carry out their duties “despite the unbelievable pressure of the situation there.”
“They are under extreme distress, unable to provide for families, yet still going to work and providing humanity response,” the official said, adding that what the LAF commander Gen. Joseph Aoun heard during his recent trip to Washington was that the US would continue to support him and the LAF.
Asked if the US was considering helping pay the salaries of Lebanese soldiers, the official said: “I cannot answer that; he asked for support.”
UAE: F-35s and Syria
Echoing recent comments by another senior US official, the senior defense official said there was no timeframe for the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. “It’s a mutual decision for the timeframe. That’s just how it works.”
Adding that the UAE must make certain decisions to advance the sale, the official noted that the UAE had heard “from us both publicly and privately … that we are committed to the sale.
“The US is committed to going forward with the F-35 sale.”
As for UAE efforts to normalize ties with Syria and the Assad regime, the official said the US had no plans for rapprochement.
“The Assad regime has been able to regain territory with the help of Russia and Iran. When our strategic partners reengage, they will need to consider who is benefiting from that engagement,” the official told reporters.
Asked if the US would relay its position, the official said the UAE already knew Washington’s position.
“We think our partners should share a vision with us in a stable, sovereign, secure Syria with a regime that doesn’t drop chemical weapons or torture its citizens to death.”