Raghida Dergham with esteemed guest General McKenzie, and guests General Petraeus and His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal
Wednesday February 24th, 2020
Raghida Dergham: Good morning Tampa. Welcome General McKenzie to the 29th e-Policy Circle of Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi. Good afternoon Riyadh where HRH Co-chairman of Beirut Institute Summit Prince Turki Al Faisal is. Good morning D.C. with General David Petraeus, a loyal friend of our summit and really practically the honorary Co-Chair, because we would never book any event without getting his calendar cleared for every summit we’ve had so far, including, God willing, the fourth edition of Beirut Institute Summit, which is now by the way, for the moment, scheduled for October, early October 2021. COVID permitting, and we don’t know what’s going to be happening that but that’s our intention. This e-Policy Circle is incredibly special. First of all, it’s one of its kind that we’ve done. It’s the 29th, e-Policy Circle. We have one guest, in reality, our guest is General McKenzie who is, of course, the Commander of the Central Command of the United States, and a very important position not militarily only as you will know, but also geopolitically in every sense, and that’s the conversation we will be having today. Both Prince Turki and General Petraeus have agreed graciously to really outshine me and outsmart me by asking General McKenzie questions of their own for seven minutes each. And then after which I will conduct a one-on-one sort of interview conversation that will last for about 30 minutes, and that would be only with General McKenzie. So, after the line of questioning by both His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal and General Petraeus, we will then have a one-on-one conversation with General McKenzie. This promises to be a very special e-Policy Circle. And I want to thank everyone who’s joined us for this edition and others. And I would start by thanking general McKenzie for this honor, and give you the floor for eight minutes. General McKenzie, please proceed.
General Kenneth F. McKenzie: Thank you very much. Good morning Raghida. And thank you for the opportunity to participate in the Beirut Institute e-Policy Circle today, I’m honored to share the virtual stage with you and later with His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal and General Petraeus. I consider the opportunity to dialogue with organizations such as yours, of vital importance, so we can provide clarity and transparency and lend context to current events. And I believe today’s theme of ‘Stability Redefined’ is uniquely appropriate with regards to the United States Central Command Area of Responsibility. So, I want to offer a few brief thoughts on the concept of stability, and how I believe it needs to be redefined in my theater. One of the broad drivers of instability in the Middle East is the threat of violent extremist organizations or VEOs. This threat comes from several different groups across the entirety of the region. However, for the purpose of today’s discussion, I want to focus on the effects of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while acknowledging that this issue hits close to home in Lebanon as well. As you know, it took several years for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, to actually defeat or end the physical caliphate that ISIS claimed. More recently, in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. The Iraqi security forces have made great strides. Last year coalition forces under the command of combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve began transitioning from a focus on partner operations and tactical level train, advise and assist to a focus on advising and enabling partner forces at the operational and strategic levels. Similarly, in Syria, our partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces, or the SDF, display continued progress against ISIS. While coalition forces occasionally support SDF operations, we are forced to focus more on developing the SDF capabilities to enable it to operate independently. While ISIS caliphate, the ISIS caliphate, no longer holds territory, the group remains tenacious. We must remain focused on the defeat ISIS mission, understanding that the organization’s destruction is not yet complete. In fact, from a global perspective, I firmly believe we will need to maintain constant vigilance to defend against the threat of ISIS or whatever inevitably follows ISIS, wherever it looms, as it has planted its hateful and destructive seeds around the world, including in your country. Because of that I believe even the brightest possible future will not be a bloodless future. Attacks will be more than likely continuing in the form of an insurgency. So, our goal moving forward is to continue to develop and enable the ability of local partners to maintain the fight against ISIS in their respective areas without significant external assistance. And I believe we’re making great progress in that regard. But this does not provide stability, it provides security, one of the factors that actually sets the conditions for overall stability. And to reinforce that point, I want to highlight two challenges to stability that are byproducts of the D-ISIS fight. The first is the substantial number of ISIS fighters and foreign trained fighters currently in detention under the oversight of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The second is the much larger number of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, and refugees that remain in Syria and Iraq. Today, the SDF holds up proximately 10,000 captured ISIS fighters, including nearly 2,000 foreign fighters in more than two dozen makeshift detention centers across northeast Syria. Coalition military forces do not directly supervise these detention activities, but our assistance continues to mitigate the risk of breakouts that could, it could fuel ISIS efforts to regenerate. While the SDF remains capable of responding to both external attacks and quelling internal riots, detainees within the walls of these makeshift prisons largely govern themselves. Of even larger scope and concern are the IDPs and refugees living in camps across northeast Syria, and Iraq, and in several neighboring countries, including Lebanon. Before continuing, allow me to first acknowledge and thank the generosity of the Lebanese people for hosting close to one and a half million Syrian refugees fleeing the brutality of the Assad regime. We know the support does not come lightly, and it shows your friendship and solidarity with the people of Syria. The United States is committed to ensuring the voluntary, safe and dignified return of all refugees and IDPs to their homes as we bring an end to this conflict, and we will continue to support host communities in Lebanon and the region until those returns are possible. Today, we work in Syria in support of Syrian IDPs and their situation is, frankly, quite dire. And I’ll use the al-Hol camp as an example. As of last month, about 62,000 people, mostly women and children were living in the al-Hol camp under difficult and dangerous conditions. Around two-thirds of the population of al-Hol is under the age of 18. Over half were under the age of 12 and one-third are under the age of five. Combining the existing core conditions with an already at-risk demographic, creates a very real near term risk, such as an outbreak of cholera, or coronavirus, and that situation could lead to a massive loss of human life. But the long-term risk, in my opinion the far greater risk, is the vulnerability of this population to indoctrination of ISIS ideology. This is an alarming development with potentially generational implications. And there’s no military solution to this issue. Together with the international community and with regional local leadership, we must support the return of these displaced people to their homes in Syria or Iraq or further afield, reintegrating them into home communities and supporting them in receiving locally grown reconciliation programming. If we are unable to reintegrate displaced people, we will bear witness to the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS as these children become radicalized. And then it will become a military problem as the next generation of ISIS fighters that grows up in front of our very eyes right now takes up arms against us. Addressing this issue requires local solutions, supported by local governments, developed through cooperation among diplomatic, security, and humanitarian partners, those best placed to support and reintegrate these individuals into society. This remains a tough global problem requiring global resources channeled through regional and local solutions, and it’s not going to go away by ignoring it. So as we redefine stability, it’s my observation that enduring stability in the Middle East is ultimately not hinged solely on military capabilities, but rather the security that they can rely on. This then sets the conditions that allow diplomatic and humanitarian entities along with local government and civil society to do their work. Finally, I want to close out the topic of stability by acknowledging the critical efforts of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the work they do in providing security and stability as Lebanon works to overcome significant challenges and works towards a brighter future the Lebanese people deserve. The partnership between Central Command and the Lebanese Armed Forces represent the strength of our security cooperation efforts in the region. Thanks very much, and I look forward to our discussion.
RD: Thank you so very much, General McKenzie, you have left me with no choice but to do a follow up before I give the floor to Prince Turki and to General Petraeus. It is about the Lebanese Army. How does the United States intend to keep assisting the Lebanese Army with voices in D.C. who are asking to cut completely this assistance saying that this army is associated with Hezbollah? I have another follow up, and I’ll allow you to kindly just answer me this one first.
GM: Sure, absolutely. So, from a military perspective, United States Central Command has a very productive and deep relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces. We view the Lebanese Armed Forces really as a key institution to maintain security and stability in Lebanon. U.S. support in the form of equipment, training, and mentorship has supported the last development into a capable and professional fighting force. I recognize that the LAF is under great stress now, but we’ve also seen them perform remarkably well as in after following the Port Explosion of last year. They were the one institution that the country could turn to, to actually perform. So, I know there are many voices about the penetration of the LAF by Hezbollah and other things, but I have a very close relationship with the Commander of the LAF, and I believe it is critical that we continue to support them, and I’m a tireless advocate for that in Washington as we go forward.
RD: I understand you’re coming to Lebanon in the near future, can you give me a bit of a closer timeframe? When are you coming here? You’ve been once to Lebanon. And then how…
GM: I’ve been once, and I hope to get back in the later, later in the spring and we’re still working those dates. And for obvious reasons, I won’t be able to give you much precision on that, and you’ll appreciate that. But I hope to spend some time with General Aoun and get an opportunity to visit some of his units. And again, I really need to emphasize the importance we place in the Lebanese Armed Forces. You know, as the as the representative of security for the state. And that’s an important thing. And we will continue to emphasize that.
RD: And upgrade the assistance, because there’s criticism that it’s not good enough.
GM: I am a tireless advocate for support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and will continue to be so
RD: Alright, please, Your Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Fasial, sorry I stepped into your space. Forgive me for that. But I know that you care for Lebanon and so I know I’m forgiven anyway. Please, you have seven minutes of the conversation between you and the General McKenzie to bring to the table anything you wish to, and please, Prince Turki, the floor is yours. This is seven minutes between you and General McKenzie.
His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal: Thank you, Raghida, you’re my boss, and I follow your wishes all the time. General McKenzie, it’s a pleasure to talk to you and see you in person, although it is still between us, the cyberspace. I just like to refer to your comments on ISIS and remember that in 2014, after ISIS broke out and occupied whatever it occupied, that the meeting that established the coalition to fight ISIS took place in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah. And from that point onwards, the joint efforts of the United States and the coalition that is fighting ISIS, have proven their worth in breaking up, as you said, the so-called state in Iraq and Syria. But I’m equally concerned Your Excellency, not just about ISIS, but about the other destabilizing force in the area, which is the Iranian militias, and Iran’s malevolent intentions, as we see them in Saudi Arabia, not just in Iraq and Syria and in Lebanon, but also in Yemen and towards Saudi Arabia. And as you know, the Houthi militias are have been bombarding us with missiles, and the last few years, and with drones that are targeting civilian targets. And from that perspective, the questions that I posed to you about the definition of terrorism, I think- I looked it up today in in the US definition of terrorism and definitely targeting civilians is one of the main definitions of terrorism applied by the United States. And hence, from a Saudi perspective, and as a citizen of Saudi Arabia and seeing how dangerous and very unsettling, not only to the kingdom, but I think to all the countries around us, particularly as the Houthis deploy maritime mines, to disrupt naval navigation in the Red Sea, and continue to their onslaught on the kingdom and the Yemeni people. I just want to thank you first, for your continued statements exposing Iran’s malevolent activities in the area and the militias that they support. You’ve been very, very vocal in that. And I hope that your superiors in Washington take note of your, of your views on these things and I’m sure they do. And they wouldn’t have put you in that place unless they have listened to you. And I remember personally, and working with General Petraeus when I was an ambassador in Washington. And I think then General Petraeus, you were the Central Commander at the time. And previous to that, of course, we get to Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm, etc. So, the kingdom’s relationship with Central Command has been very, very, not only beneficial to both countries, but also to the stability of the area, and I hope we continue to do that.
RD: General McKenzie, can you address a couple of points that Prince Turki was apparently insinuating, basically, you know, what has Central Command done with Saudi forces to prevent further Iranian attacks on Saudi installation? What is the code you know? The airports, the attacks on airports. What’s the definition of the Central Command on these attacks? Sorry, but you have only four minutes left, or something like that.
GM: First of all, Your Highness it’s good to see you again.
RD: You have one more question only Your Highness.
GM: Good to see you again. You know, I was in Saudi Arabia just last month and had the opportunity to spend some time with the Chief of Defense General Whaley, an old, good friend of mine, and this is an important relationship. And we, you know, we see Saudi Arabia as not only the geographic center of the AOR, but in so many ways, the cultural, economic, and spiritual center of the AOR. So, this is an important relationship for us, and we prize it greatly at U.S. Central Command. And while I work the middle channel, I understand all the other things that tie our two nations together as well. So first, I will just briefly address, you know, your concern about the definition of terrorism. I think we would broadly agree. In my definition of terrorism would be that of the United States, which is that U.S. Department of Defense, we define terrorism, as the calculated use of violence, or the threat of violence, inculcate fear, intended to coerce, to try to intimidate government or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological. And that is certainly what we’re seeing, you know, with the attacks on the airfields and other things. So, I certainly think that fits a working definition of terrorism. Now, let me sort of answer the second part of your question, what are we doing? And talk a little bit about some of the specific things we’ve done with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So, at the request of Saudi Arabia, we deployed a number of capabilities into the kingdom, since the summer of 2019, including a THAAD battery, which is a high-altitude ballistic missile interception system, two Patriot batteries, a number of radars and, and various other resources. More importantly, and I think a little bit under the, under the radar, literally, we’ve worked with your air defense system to improve the capability of your Patriots. And as you know, the kingdom has a number of Patriot, high-end Patriot capabilities, to ensure that we are all looking at the same air picture. That is a dream that CENTCOM has pursued for over a decade. I know that General Petraeus, I see him smiling because he knows, that this is something that we’ve worked at for a long time, something we call integrated Air and Missile Defense. So, we’re working with General Whaley, and with your team in Saudi Arabia, to integrate your Patriot systems into those of your neighbors and the region, and also into ours to expand the capabilities of the system. Because really, it’s not, you shouldn’t think of it as a single Patriot battery, but rather the entire system of system that feeds information to that single Patriot battery. So that is something that we are committed to working with. And really, since the fall of 2019, we have made significant strides in that regard, working with the air defenders of Saudi Arabia. And we will continue to do that. As you know, we’ve also based almost 3,000 U.S. forces at Prince Sultan airbase, which is centrally located in Saudi Arabia. That’s where two of our Patriot batteries and the THAAD battery are, as well as the long-range radar that allows us to look north up into, up into Iran. We base fighter squadrons there as well, on a rotating basis. This is very important because I think it all contributes to the larger defense of Saudi Arabia. And one, one last point I’ll make on this, Your Highness, is that we are very well aware of the ramp up of attacks by the Houthis over the last 30 days. This is significant, not only ballistic missiles, but also land attack cruise missiles, and UAS’s unmanned aerial systems, drones, in effect. These things are not helpful, you know, to come into a peaceful solution in Yemen. And I will finally just say, it is my judgment, my belief from talking to a number of people in Saudi Arabia that the kingdom does seek a negotiated political solution in Yemen. And these attacks are not helpful bringing that, bringing that to fruition. So, I’ll pause there.
RD: Prince Turki, please, a very quick 30 seconds intervention, please, because the time has run out, and a very, very quick also response by General McKenzie. Prince Turki?
PTF: Just to carry it a step further, if you don’t mind, which is Iran is really the one who is supplying these missiles and drones to the Houthis. What’s being done about preventing Iran from that supply, because resolution, at the United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2216, prohibits the export of arms to the Houthis. And yet we see this supply continuing and growing in the meantime. And the coalition tries its best, but of course, it needs all the support it can get not just from the US Navy and other navies in the world, but from all of us, all together, to prevent this, what seems to be unlimited supply to the Houthis.
GM: Your Highness. Thank you. And we know that’s a significant problem, too. Iran does. These weapons that are launched into Saudi Arabia don’t spring from the ground in Yemen. They’re bought into Yemen and they’re brought into Yemen from Iran, and they have very clear Iranian fingerprints on them. And we should never lose sight of that fact. And they come in by sea and they come in by land. Most of our efforts have been focused at sea and we’ve had some success in interdicting Iranian supplied weapons that go to the Houthis. The United States, and our maritime force partners, have interdicted a number of weapons shipments that we assess originates in Iran, and were intended for the Houthis in Yemen. Some of these shipments mostly consisted of small arms, but other things like sophisticated, sophisticated rocket material has also been captured as well. So, we’re working. We will continue to work with our partners to do this. As you know, it is an intelligence problem, but we do have the UN Security Council resolution, as you noted, Resolution 2216, behind us, and we will continue to work with the 33 member nations of the CMF as we try to damp down these illicit transfers of weapons. I recognize it’s a problem and we will continue to get after it Your Highness.
RD: Thank you very much. Your Royal Highness, stay with us till General Petraeus finishes his exchange with General McKenzie and then both of you, you will stay with us to listen, but you will not be on the screen. Thank you very much Prince Turki for agreeing to this intervention. I absolutely am grateful to you. General Petraeus, over to you.
General David Petraeus: Thanks Raghida, and thanks Frank, for joining us and for what you continue to do. Congratulations, ‘mabrouk’, on the integration of the U.S, and Saudi integrated air defense systems, the Early Warning and so forth, something that your predecessors and I were never successful in doing. You may recall the term ‘bilateral multilateralism’, which was how we achieved a multilateral picture, but by bilaterally doing it through U.S. systems, and this is a much better approach. I wanted to start by asking you about Afghanistan. Obviously, the force was reduced there in January to what reportedly is a good bit below the level that the Commander on the ground said would be the minimum. There are a lot of concerns that as the snow melt in the fighting season resumes in full, noting that it really has been quite substantial, even during the winter season, uncharacteristically so, concern that we might find that this level is too low and that the ability to support the Afghan Security Forces is not adequate. I asked President Ashraf Ghani about this recently and asked if my fears were ones that he shared, and he said, ‘yeah, that is a concern’. How do you assess that particular situation?
GM: General, first of all, thanks. It’s good to see you again, as always. So, in Afghanistan, we continue to support a negotiated settlement as the best possible outcome between the government and the Taliban going forward. We have consistently complied with our end of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. And as you noted, we’ve reduced our forces to 2,500. But I’d also like to note that not only are there 2,500 U.S. forces there, there are almost over 5,000, NATO and coalition partners there. So anytime we consider our posture in Afghanistan, we really need to treat it not only as a U.S. problem, but as a NATO and a coalition problem as well. So, the actual footprint is a little bit larger than 2,500. And those are all very capable NATO troops and coalition troops that are with us as well. Both sides have executed prisoner exchanges, as confidence building measures, the Taliban have refrained from attacking U.S. and coalition troops. And they have engaged in some direct negotiations with the government. I think we’re all tracking those as they go forward in Doha. Unfortunately, we still continue to see levels of violence that are way too high. I place a large measure of the blame on the Taliban, who have continued to mount offensive operations and targeted killings of Afghan officials. But the excessive violence has led the government to launch their own defensive operations to protect themselves. The violence while too high on both sides, in my clear judgment, rests largely on the Taliban. We also continue to work for, or look for, signs of a Taliban break with al-Qaeda. And I have not at this point seen any definitive signs that would lead me to believe they’re prepared or able to honor their obligations about that, should we elect to draw down. So, I think right now, as we speak today, there’s some legitimate doubts as to the Taliban’s compliance with the peace agreement. And the administration is going to have to decide how to proceed. And they’re in the process of weighing those policy alternatives right now.
GP: Thanks. Let me shift to another topic, which is the addition of Israel to your Area of Responsibility, something again, many of your predecessors and I would have welcomed, but especially important now, given the assessment of really everyone in the region that Iran, as Prince Turki noted, is really the big destabilizing influence with given that you got at least a reasonable amount of sustained commitment against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda remnants in the AOR. How is that process of, in a sense, integrating Israel, its forces, our forces, the common air picture, all the rest of that. How is that going right now?
GM: Thanks, sir. So, as you know that that is a complex task that will take months to actually accomplish. We’re beginning that process now working closely with European command. But we’re held by a couple of things. First of all, Israel’s operational orientation has always generally been to the east, and to the north, which is under the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility. So those concerns will not change. And we routinely work with Israel on a variety of activities, to help to help them defend themselves. So those things will not, those things will in fact, not change. Also, you know, actually Israel is part of the Middle East Bureau of the Department of State. So, this movement of them into the Central Command will actually better align our diplomatic and military organizational structures back in Washington. It’s a bureaucratic thing, but as you know, not necessarily a minor thing. So, I think those two things are both very important. I think that the Abraham Accords and a normalization of some Arab states within their relationship with Israel also sets the tone for this, for this further look to the east with Israel. And I think all this contributes to just a good time to, a good time to bring them in. And again, it won’t be overnight, it’ll take a little while to do it, because there are other things that are associated with a relationship with Israel, long managed by European command, that we will work closely to turn over without any seams or gaps during. But I think the bottom line is, what it does is it’s got to be something I would think Iran would be concerned about, but because it represents a broadening really of, of nations that are concerned about them, and will help inevitably in establishing relationships across the entire realm.
GP: Right, Raghida, can I ask a quick question to Prince Turki to follow that up? And that is, what the prospect is for Saudi Arabia following the UAE and Bahrain, and some other countries, in recognizing Israel. Thank you.
PT: Well, in general, as you know, the kingdom has been very vocal in maintaining its commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, as being the viable solution to the Arab Israeli dispute. And while accepting that countries have their sovereignty and they make their decisions themselves, as the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have done towards recognition of Israel and establishing normal relations. Yet all of those countries have equally continued to publicly say that they are committed to the Arab Peace Initiative. So, it is also, I might add here, that the two-state solution has been on the ground since 1967, via the Resolution 242 of the United Nations Security Council, and yet nothing has happened there. And the Biden administration has re-committed the United States to the two-state solution, which is a good step in my view. And that is something that needs to be pursued, not simply proclaimed. And not just by the United States, but to the world community that suffers from what is happening as a result of the Palestinian situation, and the occupation that is happening there. The IRGC in Iran raises the banner of liberating Palestine. The ISIS, when they were functioning, they raised that same banner. Al-Qaeda, before ISIS, raise the same banner. So, it is a banner that any malefactor is willing to pick up and raise high as a means of recruiting and as a means of selling themselves as the liberators, if you like, or the genuine, of genuine concern for the so called occupied peoples of Palestine and the areas occupied by Israel. So, solving that issue, I think, is paramount. And, of course, I have stated many times publicly, that the Arab Peace Initiative is the most logical way of reaching normalization with Israel. And it shows that the kingdom and the other countries are committed to it want to normalize with Israel. But you have to fix the Palestine before you can do that.
GP: Chukran jazilaan, al-Turki, Frank and Raghida.
RD: Thank you. Well, wait a second General David Petraeus and Prince Turki al-Faisal. You will, you will not be on the screen but I promise you to remember some of the things which are on your mind, such as the arms sale, General Petraeus, you wanted to know what meant, pending arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also Iraq and Syria. I hope you trust me with some questions that I’m sure that General McKenzie will answer candidly. Thank you both for joining, what an honor. And I will turn now, goodbye for now, and I will turn to General McKenzie. And first of all, I’m going to ask you General McKenzie, to have less space, you know headspace, so that I can see you fill the screen fully. And let me just ask about the sales that General Petraeus had in mind to ask you, the pending or potential arms sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia? Is this going to be a lengthy reconsideration given whatever considerations, political considerations that is for the Biden administration, for the Democrats. How would that impact your own tasks here in the region General Mackenzie?
GM: Sure. Well, thank you. As you know, those arm sales are undergoing review. And I gotta be careful to not get ahead of the administration, as I talk to you this morning. But I would note that it’s typical at the beginning of any administration to review pending arms sales to ensure they advance our objectives and are commitsistent with U.S. policy, and that’s what’s going on at this moment by this administration. Certainly, the administration is interested in curtailing the sale of offensive weapons being used in the conflict in Yemen. And we’re all supportive of a political solution to the conflict because it’s a terrible humanitarian disaster, as I’ve already sort of addressed. That said, I expect it will be a difficult review as equipment can often be used for both offensive and defensive capabilities. And the U.S. continues to support the defense of Saudi Arabia, as we’ve already talked about a little bit, and I can certainly talk about a little bit more. So that policy review process is ongoing right now. And I don’t want to get ahead of it. It’s really, it would take a lawyer to answer some of those questions. And I am not a lawyer.
RD: But talk about it now, General McKenzie, if you have things that we would…I’m definitely interested to know what do you have in mind in defense of Saudi Arabia. Have you have heard the pledges? Cecause sometimes people are not taking seriously what the Biden administration is saying, oh well you know, we will stand, we won’t stand by- this is one quote that is being used- you are deeply troubled. And there is questioning of the intention of the Biden administration, in following through. These words seem not to buy it.
GM: So, let me sketch what we’ve done with Saudi Arabia to help defend them, and I’ll capture some of the things I’ve already noted. So, at the request of Saudi Arabia, we’ve deployed a number of capabilities into the kingdom since the summer really, since summer of 2019. And that includes a what we call a THAAD, Terminal High Area Air Defense, anti-ballistic missile system. That’s one of our key, one of our very precious capabilities, that’s now located within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, we’ve deployed two Patriot batteries, and several Sentinel radars, which are designed to fill gaps in existing Saudi radars. So that’s a pretty significant commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia. Beyond that, as previously noted, we’ve worked to enhance the linkage and the performance of the Saudi Air and Missile Defense system, that that includes improving the Saudi common operational picture to increase the ability of Saudi radar and defensive systems to see the threats. So today, we’ve got about 3,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, primarily at Prince Sultan Airbase, which includes the U.S. missile defense assets I’ve already noted, but also fighter squadrons that rotate in and out of there, come through come through Prince Sultan or PSAB, as we call it. And this is this is perhaps the most important thing. If we have eminent indication of attacks on Saudi Arabia, we share that with them. And that gives them what we call ‘tipping’ and ‘queueing’ in the air defense business that allows them to help defend themselves. So, while they have been attacked, very concerningly, over the last few months by a number of cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles from, typically from Yemen. The Saudis have had good success in intercepting those. Not perfect success, because it’s a tough problem. And we have contributed to that. I’ll pause there.
RD: Do you think, General McKenzie, that the U.S. might be dragged militarily into the situation with Yemen, via Saudi Arabia, if the Houthis continue with these attacks, given the pledge by the U.S. not to let this go by unnoticed? Is there a fear of that? Or is there an intention for that?
GM: So, I think the Biden administration has designated a new special envoy to Yemen, and he’s tasked with advancing the peace effort in Yemen and find a negotiated solution to the conflict. CENTCOM is prepared to support in any way that we can, and we’re hopeful that we’ll get to a political solution there. And I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this conflict many times with leaders in Saudi Arabia, and I’m confident that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ready and willing to end the conflict. They’ve conducted a unilateral ceasefire, and they’ve made some overtures to the Houthis. So, I think the ball really is in the Houthi court a little bit now. I think, for the Houthis, to come forward to begin these negotiations, continue these negotiations.
RD: Is the potential of the Houthis coming around, is that in the hands of Tehran? Or is it in the hands of the Houthis? And what’s the scene on that?
GM: That’s a great observation. And I would say it’s really in the hands of the Houthis. But they are prompted by their Iranian sponsors. And as we know, Iran has no interest in this bloody war coming to an end. They brought nothing to Yemen, but death and weapons. They’ve never put any humanitarian aid into Yemen. So, I think it suits Iran’s geopolitical aspirations for this war to continue. The Houthis, what they need to do is rise above that and see what serves them. And that is to come to a better agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and try to find a political settlement.
RD: General McKenzie, what leverage does the United States have with the Houthis? Really to give them incentives, or to show real threat?
GM: Well, I think, you know, I’m supportive of incentivizing positive behavior anytime we can. And that increases anything that will increase the security of the region. So, we’re all about that. Most of these things are going to be Department of State issues. I would say they revolve around humanitarian assistance. They are all around recognition. As you know, the United States has actually taken a very positive step by withdrawing the terrorist designation of the Houthis. I think that is a significant goodwill gesture that the United States has made. And we made that without precondition or requirement for the Houthis to do anything. So, I think we put some chips on the table here, actually.
RD: Right. This is exactly my question. You’re putting chips on the table, but the problem is that if there is no follow up, then it’s the credibility of the U.S. that’s on the table.
GM: I acknowledge that point. I would say it’s still early in this process and I would like to give it a little bit more time to work. You make it you make a good point and I and I accept your point. But I think what United States has shown goodwill here, we’ve shown we’re willing to commit intellectual resources, state resources, in trying to solve this problem. At the same time, we recognize our commitment to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
RD: General Mckenzie, you have spoken of the U.S. military is looking for so called ‘fallback bases’, I think this was your word ‘fallback bases’, in Saudi Arabia to protect the forces in the event that tensions are further raised by Iran. What is the fallback bases? Is this a substitute for bases, American bases in certain areas? Can you explain, you know, and are you shutting down bases in the region?
GM: Sure. So, what we’re trying to do is increase the depth and flexibility of our basic posture in the region to complicate Iran’s ability to target those bases. We are not shutting down any bases and we’re not opening any new bases. And there’s no, there’s no formal agreement here. These are merely opportunities to base places where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular, already has air bases and basic infrastructure. It gives us the ability to move our aircraft there, perhaps under times of stress or warning, so that we can make it harder for the Iranians to know where we are, it is a reasonable and prudent operational planning technique. It does not reflect a new agreement. It does not reflect a movement away from those bases in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, and UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, other nations that are there. We’re not looking to close those bases, because we think those bases are ideally positioned for many activities. What we’re doing instead is simply increasing our operational depth in the theater.
RD: General Mckenzie, what, what is going on now, in terms of, you know, where are we, how do we understand what’s next with Iran? You know, of course, it was clearer during the Trump administration. There was a course that is, you know, sanctions, and if you don’t do what the U.S. wants, there will be, sort of like, the tool was always the sanctions. The tool was the incentives, everything was about the sanctions. And we don’t really know how to read with the Biden administration wants now. The signals are confused. On one hand, we understand that they want to go back to the JCPOA, no matter what, and on the other hand, there is no clarity on the issue of lifting sanctions, on the issue of who cries uncle first, if you will, or who, you know, gets to sacrifice or compromise before the other. How do you be sure that- you’re the Commander of a very important force here. How much does this complicate your life? And how do you understand it? Will you help us understand what the Biden administration is actually really up to in terms of leverages and incentives to Iran?
GM: As the military commander in the region, my responsibility, my task, is to deter Iran from attacking either directly or indirectly, us or our partners and proxies, or our partners and friends in the region. So, coupled with that, and at a higher level will be the ultimate approach of the Biden administration to Iran. And I would tell you, frankly, they’re now in the process of evaluating that going forward. And I don’t want to get out ahead of them at all on that, because there’s a very deliberate consultative process that involves not only the United States, but consultation with our friends and partners in the region and globally, as they fashion the way forward. So, I think it’s still very early. But my job during this period of time, is to convince Iran that is not in their interest to try to do something militarily to either further pressurize or disrupt this process. And I think I’m confident that very soon, we’ll know what that ultimate policy is going to be. I think right now, they’re in the process of deciding what, you know, the contours of that policy.
RD: What are the red lines now with Iran?
GM: Well, so that’s actually not a military construct. That’s a diplomatic construct. So, I’m not going to be able to give you the exact details on it. But I will tell you this. You know, we do not want to see Americans attacked in the theater. We don’t want to see our friends and partners attacked in the theater, at a state level. And largely that has that has actually agreed to, you know, I think we’ve achieved that. Where we have not completely achieved that, and this is why- I call the status of our relationship right now with Iran is one of contested deterrence. So, we have achieved state on state deterrence with Iran. However…
RD: What’s contested deterrence?
GM: So, what contested deterrence is, in places like Iraq, we still see Iranian proxies seek to attack the United States and our allies in Iraq. And that has happened very recently with rocket attacks in Erbil and other locations over the last few days. Additionally, as we know, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is under constant attack by Iranian proxies firing of Yemen. So, what Iran believes, and I think it’s very dangerous for them to believe that, is that these can be nonattributable, in some way back to Iranian policy. We believe that all of this ultimately emanates from Iran.
RD: What about Iraq? Iran isn’t troubled. Iraq is not really, you know, I don’t know if this is offensive, it’s almost a dysfunctional company. I know, Lebanon is, but you know, it’s clear that the influence of Iran…Is this a war, a proxy war, aimed at the United States to get the U.S. forces out? Or is it really like a battle over Iraq? An American battle over Iraq?
GM: We need to recognize that Iraq and Iran share a long contiguous border. There’s always going to be influence of each on the other, and to not recognize that is simply to not recognize, you know, the reality of the region. Having said that, and directly to your question, I believe that Iran has pursued a policy of trying to eject the United States and our partners from Iraq. And I think, over the last year, over most of 2020, they thought they had the opportunity to pursue a political solution to that. They do not any longer believe they have a clear path to a political solution. In fact, it is my judgment that the government of Iraq wants the United States and our coalition partners to remain because they see the value of our presence in the country, basic partner capacity building, as well as actions against ISIS, which is actually the primary reason that we that we are there today. So, I think the government of Iraq wants us to stay and while I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna disagree with it, that Iraq faces significant problems, economic and other problems as well, nonetheless, you know, they have, they actually want an international presence to remain. And I think that has very much frustrated, that has very much frustrated Iran as they take a look at it. And remember, there’s still work to be done against ISIS. We need to finish and set aside the conditions that allowed ISIS to flourish in the first place. So, while they no longer hold ground, there still counterinsurgency work to be done. And that is done largely- counter terrorist work to be done-and that is done largely by our Iraqi partners, not by U.S. forces.
RD: So, you’re telling me it’s about ISIS? And I get it, I understand. So, it doesn’t concern the United States that the sovereignty of Iraq is being eroded by the actions of Iran. So, is this something that is not you know, sort of not that important, or that you cannot comment on? Because there has been serious erosion of sovereignty. Look what happened in Erbil. And again, I’m sorry to push on this, but there was no reaction other than condemnation, watch out. This is a very encouraging message for those who want to feel that we frightened the United States, they wouldn’t dare.
GM: Well Raghida, I would say the United States always reserves the axe, the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing. And we demonstrated that in 2020, very clearly, I think, to a number of people, particularly Iran. The memory of the United States is very long, and the reach of the United States is very long, when we choose to exercise it. So, I would not, I would just leave it at that when we talk about responding to attacks against us. But to your point about the erosion of Iraqi sovereignty. The fact that the Iraqi government wants the United States to remain is, I think, a significant thing and as a testimony to the utility they see in keeping not only United States, but NATO and coalition partners there. That is significant. And while I again, I wouldn’t contest the idea that there’s penetration of Iraqi society by Iran, you would expect that in a country that’s adjacent, I think that the Iraqi government, by and large, sees the value in continued United States presence.
RD: I want to speak about Syria. But what if the Iranians decided to, you know, sort of do things in the Hormuz straits and the Gulf waters and etc., at least part of the red lines for you, militarily, the tankers, the free movement of trade, etc. Is this an issue that you’re going to leave to the Europeans, who, with all due respect, will play the second fiddle to the U.S. when it comes right down to it.
GM: Sure, so again, one of the key objectives of the United States in the region is to allow for the free flow of commerce across the region. And that means functionally in the Central Command AOR, that means to the Bab el-Mandeb, Suez Canal and through the, through the Strait of Hormuz, as you noted. So, without going into specifics, I’m confident we have the ability to assure that that can happen and to prevent anyone who wants to take action to slow the flow of commerce, we’ll be prepared to act as necessary in concert with our friends and partners. Should that become necessary. But again, that’s not a, that’s not really a military decision. That’s a political decision.
RD: Syria. Do we write off Syria to Russia? Did Russia win or are they in a potential quagmire in Syria? And once you answer this question, I wanted the Iranian element in Hezbollah, if you wouldn’t mind addressing that as well. Look, I mean, they are very much in control together in keeping Bashar al-Assad in office. So, and then you have Turkey having its own agenda in Syria. I want to give you the chance to just give me the opening observation as where is the United States? Do you still have bases? I know, there’s a few number of forces. How are you protecting American interest? Because it seems that you’re still you have a military, or at least a military presence, not necessarily bases. Or do you have bases in Syria?
GM: Sure. Let me just begin by sketching what we have in Syria. We operate in really two areas in Syria. First of all, we have forces at the Al-Tanf garrison, which is located in southwest Syria, sort of in the tribe border region, where Iraq, Jordan, and Syria sort of join, we maintain forces here. And those forces are down there designed to stop the flow of ISIS, across the Badia desert just to the north, and they’re there, they work with local tribes to achieve that goal. Additionally, in the east of Syria, of what we call the eastern Syria security area, roughly running along the Euphrates River and east of the Euphrates River, we have in total in Syria, about 900 U.S. forces working with our SDF partners to finish ISIS off up and down the Euphrates River valley. And our SDF partners are the people that actually undertake that work. We support them, they do the actual fighting, they’re no U.S. forces involved in actually going after these people. The SDF actually do that work for us. And so, same time, we’re sitting on top, as I’ve already noted, of a number of prisons and a number of refugee camps that are very significant in eastern Syria. And again, it’s not the US that’s doing that. That’s our SDF partners, that to actually sit on them. So the primary reason we’re in Syria is to finish the ISIS fight. That fight continues in coordination with our partners. Now, you asked me to just touch briefly on Russia, and so I’ll just deal with them here now. We think Russia looks for opportunities to make inroads into the region and they’re going to continue to use that as a way to sell their military equipment to whomever will buy it. And I think they’re actively looking to undermine the U.S. in the region, wherever they can. The problem is, it’s easy to get into Syria, as the Russians have found it, may be a little harder for them to get out. You know, they’re in a, they hold a base in northwest Syria, up at Hmeimim, we have a reasonable deconfliction channel with them to ensure that we don’t get into a problem either in the air or in the ground with them. And when we do have problems, we’re generally able to deconflict that going forward. But I think in the long term, I’m not sure what the Russians actually hope to achieve out of being in Syria, our posture is very clear. We know what we’re in there to do. I’m not sure how they say their long-term gains, except that it’s an opportunistic, an opportunistic moment, to get back into the region, to be heard, to have a seat at the big table, and to throw a little sand in the gears of the United States and the NATO coalition.
RD: So, do you think Syria is under the control of Iran, Turkey, and Russia completely, now? Do you write it off? And of course, with the help of Hezbollah?
GM: No, I don’t think so. I think that, you know, we still, with our SDF partners, the Kurds, we still occupy a significant portion of Syria, east of the Euphrates River. You know, I think it’s a witch’s brew west of the Euphrates River, between Syrian control, with their Russians sponsors. I think, also, let’s be very clear, Turkey has very reasonable and understandable security interests to prevent attacks by the PKK into Turkey. And so Turkey also has an interest in the security into northern Syria as well. But I think we’re gonna continue to see them play a role there.
RD: Yeah. Turkey seems to be in your good books as the United States Commander, although they are looked at as they are, you know, sort of occupying part of Syria and intervening in Libya and they are accused of still working together with al-Nusra and others. So, is this not your view?
GM: Well, I take a pragmatic view of what Turkey is able to do in Syria. Libya, I’ll leave, I don’t really, Libya is not my Area of Responsibility. So, I wouldn’t be an expert in commenting on that. But I would just come back to the point that Turkey has legitimate security concerns. We need to recognize those legitimate security concerns. Typically, they’ve been good to work with. Sometimes we have friction up there. But you know, Turkey is a NATO ally, we have an Article Five relationship with them. You know, they’re one, they’re a significant ally of the United States. So, we’re always going to try to find a way to work with them whenever we can.
RD: I see. All right, let me ask you about the role that that Russia is playing in with Israel in Syria. I mean, it seems to be that President Vladimir Putin is keen on playing the Israel card in the Jewish advantage, in a way probably in, as you called it opportunistic or practical in order to just fit in where the U.S. is not, in that particular situation. Can you address that?
GM: Sure, sure. So I think the Russian position…
RD: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
GM: I’m sorry?
RD: Is that a good thing that the Russians are, you know, playing this role with Israel? Or is this a bad thing?
GM: So, I think, let’s start actually with Israel. I think Israel has legitimate concerns that Iran is attempting to move sophisticated weaponry across Syria to be able to threaten them through Lebanese Hezbollah, in parts of Lebanon, and perhaps in parts of Syria as well. I think that’s a legitimate concern by Israel. And they have undertaken independent action to try to stop that as to the degree that they can. Same time, I think Russia, again, having gotten in opportunistically, is just trying to understand, is trying to, I think they want to end with a relationship with whatever state emerges in Syria, whether you know, with Assad or his successor, whatever that is, the ability to keep a base in the eastern Mediterranean, a warm water base, which as we know, has been a long-term aspiration there is going back to the Cold War. And an airbase there, and that airbase actually gives Russia the opportunity to move forces into Libya, should they choose to do this. So, I think net it’s not a good thing for Russia to be in Syria. I think they got in opportunistically and I think they’re finding that it may not be quite as good a move as they thought at the beginning.
RD: Interesting. I’ve got three minutes before the electricity goes off at six o’clock, so I need to ask a couple of quick questions. The Russians and the Chinese are quite ready to resume sending arms to Iran because of the easing up by the Biden administration of the restrictions on Iran. Does that worry you?
GM: Well, I think we have to see what sanctions are lifted or remain as we go forward, as we and our allies consult on what the new, what a possible JCPOA might look like, should we elect to return to it. I don’t know that we will. Again, that’s a political decision, not a military decision. So, I think there’s the things that have yet to happen to see whether or not they’re going to be able or be willing to sell arms to Iran. I just don’t know the answer to that question.
RD: But if they if they are, is that going to create a big challenge for you, China, and Russia? For you as a Commander of the Central Command?
GM: Well, I think you know, I think that anytime you give a nation that that has the intention that Iran does 5access to high end weaponry that is inherently pressurizing and destabilizing and not a good thing.
RD: So, I need to be going back to Lebanon, since I am in Lebanon, and ask you a couple of questions on Lebanon before we conclude in two minutes. The U.S. has always preached that we need a strong army. But the problem in Lebanon, that is to say, to protect its sovereignty to be stamped on its feet, its independence. But it’s, why is that the type of aid or help that the U.S. gives to the Lebanese army is sort of underrated. It’s being, you know, it’s being criticized, and will it be upgraded? Actually, do you intend to upgrade your help to the Lebanese army in defense of its sovereignty?
GM: So, let me just, very candidly- that’s not a military decision. That’s a political decision made at the highest levels of the United States. I will tell you this, we view the LAF as a key institution. Key maintaining the security and stability of Lebanon. And U.S. support in the form of equipment, in the form of training and mentorship, will continue to support the last development.
RD: Will you upgrade it?
GM: I’m sorry?
RD: Will you upgrade it?
GM: I’m not, I can’t answer that right now. As we noted with UAE, and as we noted with Saudi Arabia, every administration takes a fresh look at, you know, the policies they’re going to bring forth, and Lebanon is in the queue with everyone else as the administration takes a look at what our future policies might be.
RD: Are you worried about this country after the explosion in the Port of Beirut? An explosion that has affected so many, including myself? But are you worried that this investigation will go unnoticed and things will be shoved under the rug and business as usual? Or what would you think is a must do in order to…[unclear audio]?
GM: Well, I hope not. I think that explosion actually gives you an opportunity to move forward and examine the basic structure and perhaps find a, find a way forward. I will tell you this, Lebanon, I’ve been there once, it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. So, I’m deeply interested in what happens to Lebanon. I look forward to getting back into Lebanon.
RD: Well, we look forward to welcoming you and I want to thank you so much General McKenzie for this honor, and this amazing conversation we had. I would love to get a commitment, God willing, if we do the October Summit in Abu Dhabi. God willing, again, that you will honor us by your presence physically, at the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi. I thank you, most sincerely for this honor. And I wish you best of luck. And once again, until we meet next time.
GM: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak to you today. Take care. Bye-bye.
RD: Thank you very much, General McKenzie. Goodbye now.