The Middle East is “one of the Wild West areas of global competition” with China and Russia, the top U.S. general in the region said on Wednesday.
“Central Command is becoming a newly active area of engagement between us and other great powers,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said during a Middle East Institute event, arguing that the region should be viewed not only as a resource drain on the U.S. military’s focus on its two nearest nation-state competitors, but as a theater for that engagement.
The 2017 National Defense Strategy, spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, prioritized so-called “great power competition” with China and Russia over counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East — the latter increasingly out of fashion in Washington as the public mood sours on America’s “forever wars.” In theory, the strategy suggests that the United States would begin removing some forces from Central Command’s area of responsibility to deal with a resurgent Russia and the increasingly-public foreign policy ambitions of Beijing.
But although McKenzie acknowledged that he has already given up some resources to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, he also suggested that the United States will continue to maintain a military presence in Syria for the foreseeable future and warned that the threat from ISIS and other terror groups has not diminished.
“I do not know how long we are going to remain in Syria,” McKenzie said — despite repeated proclamations from Trump that troops there were “coming home.” The United States “clearly” won’t remain there “forever,” McKenzie said, but the timing of the U.S. departure would be a “political decision.”
And he made the case that CENTCOM should be viewed as part of the paradigm envisioned by the 2017 strategy, saying, “I do worry about China quite a bit” in the Middle East.
“We see China moving in, principally economically — but not completely — to establish a beachhead,” he said. “The fact of the matter is China gets over 50 percent of their oil through the Strait of Hormuz. There are mass mineral and other deposits in the theater that China would like to have access to.
“They would prefer to do it under somebody else’s security auspices, but who knows what their design will be in the long term,” he said. “I think this is a significant factor we need to confront.”
Russia is also attempting to gain influence in the region, McKenzie said, and although it lacks the economic resources Beijing has, “where they are, it’s pretty high intensity.” He cited their military involvement in Syria, where Russia has worked to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Still, he downplayed the threat from Moscow, calling their intervention in Syria an “opportunistic” effort to disrupt U.S. ambitions in the region and gain the appearance of global influence at a relatively low cost.
“I am not one of those people that thinks the Russians are master chess players,” McKenzie said.
The primary means by which he confronts Chinese and Russian influence in the region, McKenzie said, is promoting U.S. arms sales to its partners. “We don’t want them turning to China or Russia to buy those systems,” he said, in part because buying them from the United States means that Washington maintains a degree of control over how they are used.
But the threat from terrorist groups like ISIS is also not going away, he cautioned — in what was quickly interpreted by some onlookers as a bid for resources. Persistent U.S. engagement to empower local partners will be necessary to prevent the resurgence of the kind of “caliphate” that ISIS was able to seize in 2014.
“This threat is not going to go away,” McKenzie said. “There’s never going to be a time when ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage.
“Even the brightest possible future is not going to be a bloodless future.”
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