Iran remains the most destabilising force in the Middle East but there are growing US concerns about surging inflation causing instability and the rise of China, America’s top general in the Middle East said.
Speaking exclusively to The National in Abu Dhabi, US Central Command (Centcom) head Gen Michael Kurilla said he had travelled to the region less than 45 days after taking over the force on a listening tour to hear from America’s strategic partners what they see as the greatest threats.
His first visit took him to Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia and he explained that conversations repeatedly came back to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment, ballistic missile development and use of proxy militias across the region.
Tied to that, the threat from the Tehran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen was also central to discussions.
“My message in all three countries: the United States is a reliable partner here and this relationship is strong. I wanted to observe the partnership and the opportunities and gaps from their perspective,” he said.
“I think we share the same concerns and our primary concern is Iran, which I view as the most destabilising force in the Middle East. The United States' position is that we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, however, our concerns about Iran go far beyond their nuclear capability and ambitions.”
He called for a co-ordinated effort to confront Iran as well as the Houthi rebels.
He said the attacks by the Yemeni rebels on Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier this year came up in discussions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and Gen Kurilla said that he was committed to building an “integrated air and missile defence programme in support of the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] and the Emirates”.
He said there is a growing need to counter the increase in the number of attacks using relatively cheap and hard to stop drones.
“It is an area that we have to continue to improve because the technology is continuing to improve,” Gen Kurilla said. He said there was a lot of concern about the 440 such attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2021 and then two attacks against the UAE in January 2022.
This is why he said building a missile and drone defence system was key, but emphasised: “The most important thing is that it's integrated and you have a layered defence against that.”
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In March, GCC states met with the US to discuss the establishment of an integrated defence system to counter air, missile and maritime threats just hours after an attack on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.
Gen Kurilla said the other emerging threat that came up during his regional tour was that of food security and possible instability caused by surging fuel prices and inflation.
He pointed out that 85 per cent of Egypt’s wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine and these had been affected by the war. He said he had discussed this year's harvest in the coming months as well as ways for Cairo to secure other sources of grain imports.
“You can look at the impact in Lebanon, the impact in Yemen as well. So these are of great concern to our partners,” he said.
But, from the American perspective, he also placed competition with China as an area of growing concern. In recent years, China has strengthened ties to countries across the region and invested in infrastructure projects as well as military relations.
“We also face the risk of losing influence to China in the region. This is another risk I'm very concerned about. The Centcom area of responsibility is literally and figuratively at the centre of America's global competition with China,” he said.
Gen Kurilla said that as well as reiterating to allies the “ironclad” commitment that the US has to regional security, he sought to contrast Washington’s approach to its relations with partners with that of Beijing.
“China does not bring our partnership values ― while the US has partners and allies, I view China as customers and clients and our relations are not transactional. For us, partnership in the region has a commitment and we must live up to that commitment,” he said.
As Gen Kurilla takes over US Central Command from Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the force itself is going through a period of transition.
Last year, the area of operations — which covers much of North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and up to the central Asian former Soviet republics — was expanded to include Israel.
But, perhaps most crucially, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the end of combat missions in Iraq previously, US Central Command will no longer be focused on waging two of America’s longest wars.
So how will Gen Kurilla rebalance priorities? He said he believes a commander’s calendar is a good reflection of their focus and that he plans to spend much of his time on the ground in the region working with allies. But, with 21 countries in his mandate, he admitted he will focus “more on some than others”.
“Centcom right now is the only combatant command in the world in which American soldiers receive rocket and UAV attacks on a regular basis. And while our combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have culminated, our troops remain under threat in Centcom and this is a dangerous and complex theatre,” he said.
“But the bottom line is, you know, Centcom and the United States have an unwavering commitment to security in the Middle East, and we have and will remain committed to the Middle East.”