US General: Iran remains 'central problem' in Middle East

Centcom’s commander General Frank McKenzie stressed that US 'will not be in Syria forever'

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 30: U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, speaks as a picture of the operation targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen during a press briefing October 30, 2019 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Gen. McKenzie and Hoffman spoke to the media to provide an update on the special operations raid that targeted former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Idlib Province, Syria.   Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP
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The US top military commander in the region Frank McKenzie described Iran on Wednesday as the “central problem” for the US in the Middle East, saying the threat from its proxies in Iran has forced US forces “to pull back.”

Gen McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command that oversees the military's activities in the region, said the focus regionally remains on Iran.

“We remain focused on Iran as our central problem. This [Centcom] headquarters focuses on Iran, executing deterrence activities against Iran, and doing those things,” the military commander said at an event at the United States Institute for Peace.

In Iraq, he said that Iranian proxies’ missile strikes against American troops have forced the US military to pull back and redirect resources away from the ISIS fight.

"The threat against our forces from Shiite militant groups has caused us to put resources that we would otherwise use against ISIS to provide for our own defence,” the US General said. "We've had to pull back, our partners have had to pull back.”

He described Iran’s influence as “malign” and “an impediment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

But the US General praised Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi. He told the audience that Mr Kadhimi has asked the US for “patience” and is “on the right path and the US needs to support him.”

But when asked about US troop numbers in Iraq and Syria, Gen Mckenzie said any withdrawal or reduction would be up to the White House. "I don't know what that number is going to be because that's not going to be a military number.”

He did not commit, however, to a longterm US military presence in Syria. “I don’t think we’re going to be in Syria forever. I don’t know how long we are going to be in Syria. That’s going to be a political decision, not a military decision,” Gen McKenzie said. He linked such a presence to defeating ISIS.

In Syria, the US military has “very little coordination with the government of Syria,” he said. He described the Assad regime as one “that has actually missed opportunities in the past to try to come to resolution with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the East.”

Asked about ISIS fighters and families detained by the SDF, the US General expected repatriation. “I don't see any solution other than repatriation,” he said.

On the situation in Al Hol camp, the US military commander expressed fears over both the radicalisation and the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. “Bad things are going to happen if you keep a lot of people there. Bad things are going to happen in terms of radicalisation & bad things are going to happen in terms of Covid [Covid-19],” he said.