President Biden's pick for top US commander in the Middle East has warned the senate a Russia invasion into Ukraine could create broader instability in the region, including Syria.
Lieutenant General Erik Kurilla told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is expanding its power and spending in the Central Command (Centcom) region, which includes Afghanistan, Iran, countries in the Arabian Peninsula and the five republics of Central Asia.
Russia has, over the past 15 years, ramped up its presence in the region and tightened its relations with countries including Syria and Iran.
“The United States faces a new era of strategic competition with China and Russia that is not confined to one geographical region and extends into the (Central Command) area of responsibility,” said Lt Gen Kurilla during a committee hearing about his nomination.
“As the United States rightfully prioritises competition with China, we must remain engaged in the Middle East and Central and South Asia," he said.
China, like Russia, has worked on creating close ties with the Middle East, most of which has been through trade. China is one of the region's biggest trading partners and has particularly focused its attention on creating ties with Iran and the UAE, and other Gulf nations.
Lt Gen Kurilla, a combat-hardened officer with extensive experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, received a friendly reception from the panel and was told he would probably be confirmed as the new Centcom head.
He is set to take over as the Pentagon continues to try to shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific and counter a rising China, and bolster defences against Russia in Europe.
Ukraine-Russia tensions – in pictures
But Iran, and Iran-backed proxies, have kept up attacks on US and allied forces across the Middle East, often hindering plans to shift more troops out of the region. Mr Kurilla made it clear to the committee that Iran was still a major threat to US forces in the region.
Lt Gen Kurilla would replace Marine Gen Frank McKenzie, who is retiring after three years leading the command. Mr McKenzie's time as a Centcom commander has seen him dealing with America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the dismantling of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and escalating threats from Iran and its proxies as they launch more attacks against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and ships at sea.
He told the committee that, after the hearing, he was being deployed to Germany as part of the US effort to reassure allies concerned about Russia’s military build-up along Ukraine’s borders.
Asked about the potential for repercussions in the Middle East of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr Kurilla said he believes it could spill over into Syria, where Russia already has a military base and troops.
“If Russia does invade Ukraine, they would not hesitate to be able to act as a spoiler in Syria as well,” said Mr Kurilla.
The possibility of Russian power and conflict moving past the borders of Russia and Ukraine could result in the creation of a new Iron Curtain, which could include the Middle East, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Lt Gen Kurilla said the US does not believe Russia wants to go to war with the US.
On China, he said 18 of the 21 countries in the Centcom region have signed strategic agreements with Beijing, which has increased its development in the Middle East. The US, he said, has to be able to counter China in the region.