In its waning weeks, the Trump administration transferred Israel from the U.S. military’s European Command to its Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East. That decision responded to the Abraham Accords and Israel’s new, open relationships with several Arab states.
It was a “brilliant decision,” Dana Stroul, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told JNS in a recent interview.
“This is really a strategic game changer for how the United States can partner with Israel and our Arab partners in the region to advance security and stability,” she said.
The decision to place Israel in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility is also significant given recently accelerated U.S. efforts to broker normalized Israeli-Saudi relations. Riyadh is reportedly demanding a high price from Washington, including defense assurances, weapons packages and support for a civilian nuclear program.
The Pentagon is also discussing military options for dealing with Iran “on a continual basis” with Israel, according to Stroul.
“It’s in our interest to make sure that all of our partners, including Saudi Arabia, have what they need both to defend themselves and to contribute to regional security objectives,” she said.
The Pentagon is focused on integrating air and missile defenses and expanding maritime and cyber collaboration with partners, according to Stroul.
“We are in constant consultations with our partners in Saudi Arabia on how we can advance their security,” she said.
Stroul would not address the specific parameters of a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia that the Pentagon would be comfortable implementing.
“We work every day to support the defense of Saudi Arabia and look for opportunities to expand that partnership,” she said.
The Pentagon thinks that sharing intelligence, exploring integrated air and missile defense and expanding maritime awareness benefit the region including Israel and Saudi Arabia “and contribute in a positive way to security and stability,” Stroul said. “We work on it every day.”
Riyadh and Tehran
Washington has insisted that a recently-rekindled diplomatic relationship between Riyadh and Tehran will not hurt normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But it hasn’t made dealing with the Iranian issue any easier.
Pentagon officials reportedly offered Israel in recent weeks an opportunity to work on joint military planning in dealing with Iran, but the parameters of such an agreement were reportedly too opaque for Israel to agree to.
Stroul declined to comment on those media reports but told JNS, “We see Israel and the IDF as the most combat credible and capable military partner for CENTCOM.” Deeping that relationship serves Israel and the United States, and helps prepare “to respond to a variety of scenarios, and that includes Iran’s destabilizing activities,” she added.
The Pentagon, and Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, in particular, are prepared with military options should President Joe Biden ask for them, according to Stroul. “This is something that we’re talking [about] with our Israeli counterparts on a continual basis,” she said. “We are constantly sharing exchanges on Iran nuclear advances, and discussing how both sides will most effectively work together to address them.”
That sharing includes Iron Dome technology. Stroul wouldn’t give a timeline for reports that Jerusalem is finally ready to hand over Iron Dome proprietary code and know-how to Washington. But she said that Undersecretary of Defense for Political Affairs Colin Kahl spent a day visiting Israeli industry last November, learning about cutting-edge, emerging technologies that have military applications.
“The United States learns as much from Israel as Israel learns from the United States, and it’s not just Iron Dome,” Stroul told JNS. “It’s what Israel has achieved with a multi-layered air defense system, and the expertise with which it brings to bear every day to protect civilian lives.”
Mideast ally armies
The project is part of CENTCOM’s biggest challenge: interoperability, which means U.S. and Middle East ally armies, navies and air forces can collaborate, communicate, share intelligence and operate jointly.
“This is a paradigm shift in how the U.S. military is seeking to ensure our security and contribute to broader regional stability. It’s not just what the U.S. military has on the ground at any given time in the Middle East,” Stroul said, of more than 30,000 U.S. personnel operating at air bases in the region.
“We’re there using that significant investment of human resources and military capabilities to advance the capabilities of our partners and then integrate them together,” she said.
Israel’s transition to CENTCOM is “going fantastically,” according to Stroul, who took up her post in February 2021.
“I think it was a brilliant decision by the Trump administration to support the integration of Israel into CENTCOM,” she said. “What you can see is you have an entire military command focused on the key objectives and the key threats in this part of the world, which is also what our friends and partners in Israel need to be focused on.”
As Washington and Jerusalem deal with Iran, the Arab world is largely reestablishing relations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House has said that Arab partners can make their own decisions about paths back to Damascus but that the United States will neither normalize relations with nor lift sanctions on Syria.
“Here’s the other thing that’s not going to change,” Stroul told JNS. “U.S. forces’ commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
Some 900 U.S. 900 military personnel are in eastern Syria working with local partners, including the Syrian Democratic Forces, which holds about 10,000 ISIS detainees. About 50,000 displaced people—mostly families, women and children—are in the Al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeastern Syria.
“Until we address those vulnerable populations and have a solution for the repatriation of ISIS detainees, we will not have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Stroul said.
The Pentagon is now emphasizing that ISIS must not be given the chance to reconstitute or threaten the region, as Arab countries contemplate how they will interact with Damascus. “It’s imperative that everyone call on all actors who are challenging or introducing risk to U.S. forces to stop those activities,” Stroul said.
That last comment from Stroul was evidently directed towards Turkey, whose airstrikes in Syria targeting Kurdish fighters put U.S. troops in harm’s way, according to previous statements from the Pentagon.