President Trump has stoked his political base by touting the withdrawal of more than 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria as keeping his 2016 campaign promise to end American involvement in foreign “forever wars.”
The problem is that the Pentagon’s near-simultaneous deployment of some 3,000 troops and advanced missiles to Saudi Arabia is likely to trigger an escalation with Iran that could undercut Mr. Trump’s determination to get the U.S. military out of Middle East entanglements.
Administration officials say the Saudi deployment does not contradict the Syria withdrawal, but private analysts say the two moves indicate a clear strategy shift — but not one that involves reducing the overall number of U.S. forces in the region. A separate negotiating track to bring down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan seems similarly stalled.
“President Trump is making our policy in the Middle East a policy of countering Iran,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“He does want to get us out of these ‘forever wars.’ You could see it with his push for talks in Afghanistan and now the pullback in Syria. He campaigned on it, and he wants to pump it now for domestic political purposes,” Mr. Landis said. “But in reality, he’s not getting us out of forever wars because he’s going down the Iran dark hole by sending troops to Saudi Arabia, and it’s going to come back and bite us.
“Trump has basically cornered this lion of Iran, and the lion is not going to sit there peacefully and die of starvation,” he said. “It’s going to lunge out and try to free itself. Iran’s stated policy is to escalate.”
The administration has tried to downplay that prospect.
The Pentagon says the increase in troops to Saudi Arabia — including two fighter squadrons, an air expeditionary wing, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and two Patriot missile batteries — is in response to the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. and its allies blame on Iran.
In announcing the deployment Friday, officials argued that the goal is to deter, not trigger, a wider clash with Iran.
“This administration does not seek conflict with Iran,” said Brian Hook, a special representative for Iran. He said the strategy is to use harsh economic pressure and military assets to entice Iran into talks.
A bigger deal
Since Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, administration officials have said the goal is to seek a new deal to contain not only Iran’s nuclear activities but also its ballistic missile programs and support for terrorism and militancy across the region.
The approach has support from many analysts outside the government including Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer who says the administration is well aware of the consequences of escalation and is repositioning American assets to effectively “absorb” any Iranian attacks.
“The [Saudi Arabia] deployments are defensive in nature in order to absorb Iran’s attacks and make them less effective ones,” Mr. Pregent, now a fellow with the Hudson Institute, told The Washington Times.
The question is whether such a strategy collides with Mr. Trump’s vow to bring U.S. forces home.
“We’re slowly getting out of the Middle East,” the president told supporters at a campaign rally Thursday. “We’re doing it carefully.”
Mr. Trump openly lamented to his core supporters that the U.S. has “spent $8 trillion in the Middle East,” but he made no mention of the new Saudi deployment.
Mr. Hook shot back at reporters who asked during a briefing Friday whether the deployment was inconsistent with the president’s remarks.
“I don’t think it’s a contradiction,” the special envoy said. “The president has said he is getting us out of endless wars … endless wars where you have troops engaged.”
“The troops that we are sending into Saudi and the enhanced assets are defensive,” Mr. Hook said. “They are there to defend our interests and to help Saudi defend itself. We are not looking for conflict in the Middle East. We have had plenty of it.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper added over the weekend that the Saudi deployment is in America’s national security interest but that the long-term goal is to follow through on the president’s desire to stop “endless wars.”
“We do have the aspiration to relocate our forces, to move back in certain regions of the world so we can reposition them to deal with the real strategic challenges we face. That is, No. 1, China and, No. 2, Russia,” Mr. Esper told “Fox News Sunday.” “We want to make sure we have sufficient forces on the ground to help defend our partners, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and secondly to deter further Iranian provocative behavior that could lead to a conflict.”
North African escalation
The number of American airstrikes against terrorists in Somalia — including from the al-Shabab network and an Islamic State contingent there — has increased dramatically over the past three years. U.S. forces conducted 35 airstrikes in Somalia in 2017 and 47 last year. Pentagon figures show 54 strikes so far in 2019.
Military officials say privately that the goal in Somalia is not necessarily to eliminate al-Shabab but rather to degrade the group to a point where the Somali federal government can guarantee security for its people.
Officials have yet to say whether the same goal applies with regard to the Saudi deployment, which brings with it some sensitive implications given the difficult history of American military activity in the kingdom.
U.S. forces were sent to Saudi Arabia during the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, but Washington began moving them out in the late 1990s after a series of deadly attacks — most notably the 1996 terrorist bombing of a housing complex in the Saudi city of Khobar that left 19 U.S. service members dead.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi, later cited the U.S. military’s presence in the nation — and more precisely near the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina — as a core motivation behind the 9/11 and the Khobar Towers attacks.
Mr. Hook pushed aside concern that the current deployment to Saudi Arabia could reignite such jihadi outrage.
In the early 2000s, the Pentagon shifted forces from Saudi Arabia to Al Udeid Air Base in nearby Qatar, which now houses the forward headquarters of U.S. Air Forces Central Command and a combined operations hub for the greater Middle East.
An unusual exercise at Al Udeid made headlines last month after control of combined operations hub was briefly and deliberately shifted to commanders some 7,000 miles away at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
The Pentagon said the shift was meant to show “resilience” in commanding the hub remotely if necessary, but the exercise triggered speculation that U.S. forces may be considering relocating the hub, possibly to Saudi Arabia.
A senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Times that “there is definitely consideration on moving more and more troops to Saudi Arabia.”
“But I don’t know about consideration on actually putting a base there,” the official said.
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