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Threats to Middle East security and stability still abound, U.S. Defense Secretary Esper says.

| 2019

Despite positive signs in the countries he visited in the past week, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said threats to the security and stability of the Middle East still abound. The secretary spoke from the German Marshall Fund in Brussels after visiting Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Threats to Middle East security and stability still abound U.S. Defense Secretary Esper says
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper meets with members of the Afghan special forces to observe their training at Camp Commando, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2019 (Picture source: U.S. DoD)

"It is clear there is still a long way to go to achieve peace and stability in that part of the world," he said. "In fact, the numerous security challenges of today have the potential to consume our time, to sap our resources and to dominate our focus."

Esper said as the United States continues its efforts around the world to protect the homeland, to help defend allies and partners and to safeguard U.S. interests, it must do so with an eye to the future. "New threats are on the horizon that we ignore at our own peril," he said. "Meeting these challenges requires us to contend with today's foes while [preparing for tomorrow's potential adversaries] before it's too late."

In the future, wars will be fought not just on land and seas as they have for thousands of years, or in the air as they have in the past century, but also in outer space and cyberspace in unprecedented ways, he noted. "Preparing for this type of warfare requires a new focus on high-intensity conflict," the secretary said. "It requires continued reliance on allies and partners. And it requires the foresight to withstand our warfighting capabilities across all five of these domains."

The National Defense Strategy is the Defense Department's guidepost as the nation adapts its force to the new environment, Esper said. "The NDS prioritizes China first and Russia second as we transition our primary focus toward this great-power competition," he added. "It is increasingly clear that Beijing and Moscow wish to reshape the world to their favor, at the expense of others."

Through predatory economics, political subversion and military force, Russia and China seek to erode the sovereignty of weaker states, Esper said. "Over time," he continued, "this activity is undermining the current international rules-based order that generations before us worked so hard to achieve."

China's "One Belt One Road" initiative has left several nations with unsustainable debt, forcing them to trade sovereignty for financial relief, he pointed out. "Even developed nations fear China's growing leverage, which impacts not only their economic and political systems, but perhaps worse, leads them to make suboptimal security choices," Esper emphasized.

The United States is not asking other nations to choose between China and the rest of the world, the secretary said, but it is asking them to pursue a future that supports democracy, enables economic prosperity and protects human rights. "All countries must enter their relationship with the [People's Republic of China] with eyes wide open," Esper said. "China's state-sponsored theft of intellectual property, its militarization of the South China Sea and its mistreatment of ethnic minorities all set clear examples of Beijing's unwillingness to abide by international rules and norms."

Similarly, he said, Russia's foreign policy demonstrates a blatant disregard for other nations' sovereignty. "In addition to [Russia's] military incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, their use of cyber warfare and information operations continues to interfere in other states' domestic affairs," the secretary said. Esper warned against malign behavior by China and Russia that puts the international security environment on a trajectory that concerns all free nations.

Over his next two days of meeting with NATO allies, the secretary said, his message will be that the U.S. commitment to NATO and Article 5 of the treaty that created the alliance is ironclad. Article 5 states that an attack on one NATO member is considered to be an attack on all. "However, for the alliance to remain strong, every member must contribute its fair share to ensure our mutual security and uphold the international rules-based order," Esper said. That means not only contributing to the important NATO security missions around the world, but also making sufficient investments toward the capabilities needed to deter potential adversaries tomorrow, he said. "As we've all agreed, we can, must and will do more," the secretary said. "There can be no free rides to our shared security."

Esper said he is encouraged by the progress allies are making in readiness are close to the goals of the "four 30s" by 2020. "As our leaders agreed when they adopted the NATO Readiness Initiative, [we will have] an additional 30 air squadrons, 30 combat vessels and 30 mechanized battalions ready to fight in 30 days or less — a critical first step to reinstalling a state of readiness in the alliance," he said.

U.S. Army to redeploy in northern Syria to protect oil fields

The United States will redeploy forces in eastern Syria to protect oilfields in another policy shift that a former senior American official called a "shocking ignorance" of history and geography, media report. The planned reinforcement will take place in coordination with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to prevent the oilfields from falling into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), a Pentagon statement said.

No details were provided on how many or what kind of forces would be sent, or whether decisions on those details have been made."The US is committed to reinforcing our position, in coordination with our SDF partners, in northeast Syria with additional military assets to prevent those oilfields from falling back into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors," it added. Earlier on Thursday (Oct. 24), US President Donald Trump said on social media the US "will never let a reconstituted ISIS have those fields".

The latest announcement, however, contradicts Trump's controversial decision earlier this month to withdraw forces from northeast Syria, which paved the way for Turkey's military operation in the area. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, said the announcement was "emblematic of the chaos that has set in in the American foreign policy process". "It is in free-fall and the president is going back and forth," Landis said. "This doesn't really make much sense." The new deployment could mean US forces would be like "sitting ducks" being stationed in an area, in which the borders are guarded by Russian and Syrian troops, he added. "Who is going to safeguard them? The Kurds will have nothing to do with America anymore. They have now made a deal with the Assad government. The whole thing makes no sense."

Brett McGurk, the top US official leading Trump's anti-ISIL campaign until January, also criticized the latest shift in a social media post. "The president of the United States of America appears to be calling for a mass migration of Kurds to the desert where they can resettle atop a tiny oilfield. Shocking ignorance of history, geography, law, American values, human decency, and honor." News reports from Newsweek and US broadcaster Fox said a new deployment may include dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers.

Before the war, Al Jazeera reminds, Syria produced about 350,000 barrels per day, exporting more than half of it. Most of that oil came from eastern Syria. Foreign companies, including Total, Shell, and Conoco, all left Syria after the war began more than eight years ago.


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