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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Can US Centcom afford Israel?

US paratroopers board an aircraft bound for the Centcom area of operations in the Middle East, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina this month. EPA
US paratroopers board an aircraft bound for the Centcom area of operations in the Middle East, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina this month. EPA

One of the Trump administration’s final acts in foreign affairs was to include Israel in the area covered by US Central Command (Centcom), the geographic combatant command responsible for the broader Middle East.

The move will make it easier for Centcom's forces, which collaborate frequently with Arab states, to extend that collaboration to Israel. From the US perspective, it is a sensible decision, given that Israel is part of the region and shares many of the security concerns of Centcom. But it presents potential challenges to America’s top foreign policy priority, which is staying ahead in great power competition.

For decades, Israel was under the area of responsibility of European Command (EUCom) and not that of Centcom, mainly because of the complicated politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. After Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, the idea of forging closer Israel-Centcom relations was broached several times, only to hit a brick wall at every juncture because of the concerns of the other Arab countries.

Today, those concerns have largely subsided.

With the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco signing normalisation agreements with Israel last year, the road to Israel’s integration into Centcom was paved.

Israel will get to enjoy several benefits from Centcom – a large command that has accumulated a wealth of experience in military operations, strategic analysis, and contingency planning, most of which is centered on Iran. These include an added layer of deterrence against Iranian aggression, a more streamlined process for intelligence sharing and broader security co-operation.

In addition, Israel will have the opportunity to bolster its defence ties with the Arab states, with Centcom likely playing the role of practical enabler and facilitator.

So, all in all, this is an outcome that not only reflects the changing strategic realities of the Middle East but also serves the security interests of all three parties – the Israelis, Arab partners and the US.

But some significant challenges remain. First, it is likely that the resources previously used by EUcom for Israel will not be transferred to Centcom. At EUcom, dozens of officers have had oversight responsibilities to process US military sales to Israel, which is one of the largest recipients of US arms in the world.

If Centcom does not receive that influx of staff support, expertise, funds and military assets, it will have to surge internally in terms of manpower and military capabilities, all of which will cost money. But this will not be an easy sell.

EUcom will have a compelling argument to keep all of those resources in-house.

The US's 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS) prioritises great power competition primarily in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and Washington believes the Russian threat to European allies and partners has grown in recent years. EUcom will need every penny to focus on challenges from Moscow and engage in some serious repairing of key security relationships in Nato, which were badly managed by the previous US administration.

Second, it is unclear how Israel’s inclusion into Centcom will affect the global integrator role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This role entails finding integration opportunities among all the unified commands to more effectively execute the NDS. The Chairman’s shifting of resources between combatant commands based on the threat and current events will be critical to all the objectives of the NDS.

All of this leads to the broader issue of the future of America’s military footprint in the Middle East. Whether because of foreign policy reprioritisation or so-called "Middle East fatigue", the US has been trying to draw down in the region for some time, albeit unsuccessfully. This endeavour enjoys bipartisan support in America.

A Russian national flag flies on a hilltop near the city of Bakhchysarai, Crimea. Washington considers Russia to be a threat to its allies in Europe. AP Photo
A Russian national flag flies on a hilltop near the city of Bakhchysarai, Crimea. Washington considers Russia to be a threat to its allies in Europe. AP Photo

However, with Israel added into the Centcom mix, what happens to that goal? This is a question for the new administration, which will have to balance turning Washington’s attention to near-peer competitors and granting Centcom more resources to address its new Israel-centred responsibilities.

It seems that every time US officials attempt to trim the American military presence in the Middle East, a crisis erupts, forcing them to increase Centcom's forces. This time, it is not a crisis but an opportunity, and one that is likely to increase the strategic relevance of Centcom in an era of great power competition.

Bilal Y Saab is director of the defence and security programme at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington and a former senior adviser on the Middle East at the Pentagon

Michael P Mulroy is a senior fellow at MEI and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy

Updated: January 26, 2021 08:53 PM

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