Pentagon Clarifies US Priorities in the Middle East

Over the course of President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, the Department of Defense has responded to multiple hasty policy pronouncements that have often left officials scrambling to make sense of the directives. This week, however, multiple Pentagon officials tried to clarify the US military’s priorities in the Middle East. Major General Kenneth Ekman of the US Air Force, who serves as deputy commander for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, gave a virtual briefing from Baghdad on the continued fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). In addition, Vice Admiral James Malloy, commander of US Naval Forces in US Central Command (NAVCENT), the US Fifth Fleet, and Combined Maritime Forces, participated in a webinar to discuss priorities in his area of responsibility.

Multilateral Security

According to the two officials, Washington’s military priorities include ensuring the lasting defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria and maintaining security and the freedom of navigation in and around the Arabian Gulf. Clearly, from the officials’ remarks, the Pentagon is invested in building and maintaining multilateral coalitions and competent regional partners to broaden the burden of defense and accomplish these two priorities. Major General Ekman and Vice Admiral Malloy both detailed the necessity of having capable partners to help ensure regional stability. Ekman, for his part, outlined the work of a global coalition as well as bilateral efforts between the Pentagon and Iraqi and Syrian anti-IS forces. He lauded the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and gave multiple examples of how the ISF is taking on greater responsibility, allowing US military personnel to serve in training and advising roles. This, Ekman said, will let the United States reduce its troop presence, which currently stands at roughly 5,200.

In Syria, Ekman was hesitant to disclose the number of soldiers deployed there but he stated that US personnel were in the country to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in defeating an IS presence, which he described as a “largely ineffective, low-level insurgency.” Malloy, on the other hand, highlighted the regional maritime security task force dubbed Operation Sentinel that includes the United States, United Kingdom, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and others. The role of the Gulf maritime security force, first and foremost, is to defend international shipping routes, Malloy said, which are important not just for petrochemical exports but for much of the world’s major commercial activity. Malloy’s forces and those of the multilateral security team ensure the security of shipping lanes by clearing sea mines and ascertaining that no single state is able to close down waterways to coerce its neighbors.

Mixed Signals

Despite the goals outlined above, the Pentagon did muddy the water regarding what are—and what are not—US priorities in the region at present. For example, Ekman and Malloy both made a point of assuring listeners that the US military was not deployed in the region to threaten force against Iran. In Iraq, Ekman said that Iran-backed militias, while of concern, were not a priority. Malloy stressed that the initiation of a multilateral security operation was not intended to be threatening or provocative to Tehran and that US and partner forces are there solely for defensive purposes. In fact, he repeatedly stated that the presence of US and partner forces should not be viewed as “anti-Iran.” However, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid an unannounced visit to Israel this week where he met with senior officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Gantz told Milley that it is important to “continue the pressure on Iran and its proxies,” a statement that could further contribute to theories that implicate US and Israeli sabotage in causing numerous mysterious explosions in Iran.

The week’s discussions also call into question the Pentagon’s commitments to its own stated goals. Both Ekman and Malloy were asked about Russian and Chinese influence in the region since the US National Defense Strategy has placed the goal of great power competition with the two countries above that of counterterrorism as the top priority of the Department of Defense. However, according to the officials’ statements, neither is exceptionally concerned with confronting the two powers in the region. In fact, Ekman said that Russia shares the same goal with US troops in parts of Syria so neither party would interfere with the goal of defeating IS. While Malloy stated that Chinese influence in the region worries him in the long term, he did not express any serious concerns, save for Beijing’s growing economic involvement in the broader Middle East and around the Horn of Africa.

Finally, there were important questions raised this week about the Pentagon’s commitment to reducing harm to civilians in countries where the United States operates. The Department of Defense published yet another report illustrating that it had indeed killed and injured civilians during operations in Somalia against al-Shabaab. The Pentagon cites one death and three injuries after an internal review into allegations, though numerous more fatalities and injuries have been attributed to the operations.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2021 NDAA. Last week, the House passed its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and this week, the Senate passed (by a vote of 86-14) its own version. Few amendments were adopted, so the figures are still in line with those outlined in this previous Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) report. It is interesting to note that the 86 votes cast are well above the veto-proof majority necessary to pass the bill if President Trump makes good on his threat to veto the legislation. However, the Senate and House bills vary enough that a joint chamber conference committee would likely be necessary to reconcile the two versions before sending a final bill to the president’s desk.

FY21 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations. The House passed a package of FY21 spending bills (H.R. 7608, by a vote of 224-189), including funding for State-Foreign Operations that provides budgets for the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition to the provisions outlined in a previous ACW report, Democratic lawmakers added three amendments of import to countries in the Middle East. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Florida) added language providing additional funding to help Ethiopian-Israelis (amendment No. 10). Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) inserted language prohibiting the US government from providing air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to their actions in Yemen (No. 18). Finally, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nevada) successfully amended the bill (No. 34) to encourage the State Department to condemn Turkey for changing the status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Affirming the Nature and Importance of the US-Iraq Bilateral Relationship. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) introduced H. Res. 1062 to signal Congress’s appreciation for US-Iraq relations. The resolution aspires for greater bilateral cooperation and urges Baghdad to protect American diplomatic and military personnel deployed within Iraq’s borders. On July 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) marked up and passed this resolution and the additional pieces of legislation below.

East Africa Locust Eradication Act. Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-New Jersey) H.R. 7276 was endorsed by the full committee, moving it one step forward toward providing US assistance to countries in East Africa, like Sudan and Somalia, to combat a locust outbreak that could result in major food shortages.

Libya Stabilization Act. HFAC members also approved Rep. Ted Deutch’s (D-Florida) H.R. 4644 that, should it pass, would give the Trump Administration six months to levy sanctions on states that have contributed to the ongoing conflict and instability in Libya. From the outset it was clear that this would likely ensnare Russia and Turkey, but Egypt could face sanctions, too, should President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi capitalize on his threat to deploy the military next door.

Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act. The committee also took up and passed Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-New York) H.R. 3331 that looks to restrict US aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces until the institution proves that it is taking all necessary steps to limit Hezbollah’s influence and disarm the group.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Sherman Makes Pitch for HFAC Chair. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) has been identified as a top-tier candidate to replace Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. After a younger and more progressive Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) recently publicized his intention to run for the position, Rep. Sherman followed his lead and took to the press to make his own case. Sherman’s pitch paints him as a steady and studied foreign policy leader, but progressives see his positions on issues related to Israel, Palestine, and Iran as hawkish and out-of-step with much of the party’s base.

3) Hearings and Briefings

The Trump Administration’s FY2021 Foreign Assistance Budget Request. HFAC members met in-person and virtually this week to examine President Trump’s proposed budget for foreign assistance and diplomacy. Lawmakers heard testimony from the acting administrator for USAID, John Barsa. The lengthy hearing featured little of substance regarding the Middle East and North Africa, but Rep. Deutch did use his time to glean answers about the administration’s policy toward the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Deutch told Barsa that Congress was trying to restore aid to Palestinians in the West Bank but that the administration—under the guise of conducting an interagency review about US assistance to the Palestinians—has effectively frozen congressionally appropriated funds to the West Bank. Barsa refused to commit USAID to spend the money Congress has allocated—and is about to increase—for support to Palestinians.

Honoring Sudan’s Civil Society. The National Endowment for Democracy held a virtual presentation of its annual “democracy awards” and this year’s recipients comprised individuals and entities from Sudan who have played an integral role in the country’s pursuit of democratic governance. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York), Elise Stefanik (R-New York), Karen Bass (D-California), Mike McCaul (R-Texas), and Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) as well as Senators Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) provided prerecorded remarks to congratulate those being recognized as well as to stress support for Sudan among those on Capitol Hill. Rep. Engel and Senator Coons also touted legislation each has crafted in support of Khartoum’s democratic transition. Engel’s bill—H.R. 7682—was marked up and passed through the HFAC on July 29.

In addition to lawmakers, Makila James, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Africa and The Sudans, appeared virtually to convey the Trump Administration’s support for the civilian-led democratic transition. Ultimately, James said the administration seeks a Sudanese government that is more accommodating of women and marginalized communities; holds individuals accountable for acts of violence against peaceful protesters; and ushers in appropriate legal reforms that, for example, outlaw violence against women and provide space for civil society engagement.

The Post-Islamic Republic Future of Iran. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) participated in a virtual event by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that envisions life in Iran after possible regime change. Cruz’s remarks were bombastic and at points even exaggerated, illustrating the current thinking of at least a portion of the Republican Party in Washington. As Cruz and his allies see it, the necessary course of action for the United States vis-à-vis Iran is to seek to “finally and irreversibly” end all remnants of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and to realize the “collapse of the regime” in Tehran. On the latter point, Cruz explained that “regime change” does not necessarily require US military action. Instead, he used a single example—the collapse of the former Soviet Union—to suggest that Washington can usher in regime change through empowering regional allies, exerting economic pressure, and speaking the truth about the regime. This is perhaps a shallow reading of history—as regimes in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere have stood for decades despite such actions and  pressure—but it is clear that Senator Cruz speaks for at least some in Washington when he seeks the overthrow of the regime through US initiative.

4) Nominations

SFRC Advances Nominees. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a meeting on July 29 to vote on a number of nominees. It approved Henry Wooster to serve as ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Richard Mills, Jr., to serve as the number two to Ambassador Kelly Craft at the United Nations; and Joseph Manso, who will likely serve as a representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Has Phone Call with MbS. President Trump announced during a July 23 press conference that he spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to one report, Trump called to ask about the health of the crown prince’s ailing father, King Salman.

Trump Administration Seeks to Loosen Rules on Drone Sales. The White House announced that the president has improved the standards for exporting Unmanned Aerial Systems, also known as drones. Some critics describe the move as a “loosening” of export standards that will allow Washington to transfer drones more readily to actors around the world, including to Middle East states that have expressed interest in the technology like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

President Trump Extends Lebanon National Emergency. President Trump has opted to extend for one year a national emergency declaration for Lebanon amid heightened tensions between the country and Israel. First initiated in 2007, the national emergency declaration deems threats to and emanating from Lebanon a national security threat to the United States; this allows the president to sanction individuals who undermine stability and governance, employ violence, or reassert Syrian influence over Lebanon. It will also continue to allow the White House to target Hezbollah.

2) Department of State

Brian Hook Tours Middle East in Support of Iran Arms Embargo. This week, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook traveled to Qatar, Kuwait, and Tunisia in an attempt to rally support for the Trump Administration’s goal of renewing the UN arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October 2020. Qatar and Kuwait are key Gulf Arab states, both of which have some political and economic ties to Tehran. Tunisia, for its part, was a crucial stop for Hook as it enjoys a seat on the UN Security Council, the body whose members Washington is trying to rally in support of extending the arms embargo.

State Department Levies New Sanctions on Syria, IS. The Department of State announced new sanctions on Syrian regime officials and on individuals accused of financing the so-called Islamic State. The Syrian sanctions are, in part, additional penalties levied under the Caesar Act while the majority of new sanctions are derived from previous authorities.

Secretary Pompeo Sends Message to Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. The Knesset Christian Allies Caucus held its relaunch this week and lawmakers and public officials offered remarks in support of Israel. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador David Friedman, and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) were among the American speakers. According to one report, Pompeo offered a message construed as putting the administration’s so-called peace plan “back on the table.”

III. Elections

DNC Adopts Platform Out-of-Step with Democratic Voters. This week, the Democratic National Committee adopted the party’s platform heading into the November presidential elections. In the foreign policy section of the platform, drafters refused an amendment that would have considered conditioning US aid to Israel so that funds would not be used to further annexation plans or to violate Palestinian rights. In addition, the platform makes no mention of the word “occupation” and it continues to denounce the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, though it did carve out some space by saying that the movement is protected as free speech. The platform also endorses diplomacy with Iran, seeks to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and proposes leaving a limited number of US troops in Iraq.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here