Donald Trump has just a few days left in his presidency and in an effort to consolidate Arab-Israeli efforts against Iran before Joe Biden takes office, shaking the headquarters for US military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night that Trump instructed US Central Command to add Israel to the list of nations for which it is responsible.
Israel’s shift from US European Command’s responsibility to CENTCOM was once a non-starter as tensions between Israel and its regional neighbors who have been allies of CENTCOM in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere have long been indulging. It is the culmination of Trump’s efforts to bring different nations together with a common enemy after the signing of the Abraham Agreement, in which Israel normalized relations with former enemies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel will become the 21st nation under CENTCOM’s jurisdiction and will unite as it increasingly works with the Sunni-led Gulf states in an alliance of convenience against Shiite-led Iran.
CENTCOM, led by Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., forwarded questions to the Pentagon on Friday morning.
“The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors after the Abraham Agreement has provided the United States with a strategic opportunity to align key partners against common threats in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said in a news release Friday morning. “Israel is a leading strategic partner for the United States, and this will open additional opportunities to work with our US Central Command partners while maintaining close cooperation between Israel and our European allies.”
The statement did not specify exactly what role Israel will play in the new structure. Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to requests for additional information.
There are good reasons for the long-debated change, said a former CENTCOM chief of staff.
What a war with Iran could look like
The Military Times interviewed more than a dozen military experts, including current and former U.S. military officials, about how a conflict might begin and how it might play out. This is what they said could happen:
“I think Israel’s move to CENTCOM makes sense from a US policy perspective in that many Israeli issues are linked to the other countries in CENTCOM’s AOR,” said retired Maj. General Mike Jones, who served as CENTCOM’s 2011 chief of staff was – Commander James Mattis, told the Military Times in a series of text messages late Thursday night.
That said, there are many hurdles to overcome, Jones said.
“The argument against it has always been,” It’s difficult to have credibility with two countries that are enemies, “said Jones.” When you know you have close relationships with your enemies, it is difficult to build personal trust and have really full disclosure talks. “
However, in the last decade, things have changed a lot.
“When I was in uniform I had to have two passports because the Arab countries wouldn’t let you in if you had an Israeli stamp on your passport,” Jones said. “Perhaps all Arab states are now in agreement with the recognition and movement towards normalization with Israel. Note [Saudi Arabia] doesn’t seem to be there yet. “
While the move is good for the US, Jones said it isn’t always so good for our partners.
“It’s the same reason CENTCOM has Pakistan and Pacific-Indo Command India,” he said. “From our point of view, it would be more convenient to have Pakistan and India in the same AOR. Not so much from their point of view. “
CENTCOM oversees military operations and international military cooperation in one of the world’s most troubled regions, stretching east from Egypt to Kazakhstan. There are currently around 2,500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Americans serve alongside troops from many nations.
During the long wars in these countries, CENTCOM’s allies in the region and at the CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, worked together. In addition to the countries in the region, there is an international coalition of around 50 nations that came together after September 11th. The nations have fought and died together, communicate in a common system, meet frequently to discuss the various tasks they will perform, and sometimes even share information. Israel maintains peaceful, but often very tense, relations with its neighbors and CENTCOM allies Egypt and Jordan. It had an often hostile relationship with neighboring Lebanon, also a CENTCOM ally, and continues to launch air strikes in Syria against Iran-backed targets.
What role will Israel play?
Will the Israelis put boots on the ground or planes in the air in the region?
In a way, they already were, Jones pointed out.
“They have been on strikes in the AOR – Syria the other day,” Jones said, adding that he had no inside information about events in the region. “You went to Iran, Lebanon, etc. before. Obviously there is a high level of cooperation between the US and Israel on defense issues.”
Earlier this week, Israeli warplanes apparently targeted positions and weapons depots of Iranian-backed forces in Syria. At least 57 fighters were killed and dozens more injured.
Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria are nothing new. What is new about this episode, however, is how these strikes were conducted.
A senior US intelligence official with knowledge of the attack told The Associated Press that the air strikes were based on information from the United States. The official said the strikes targeted a number of camps in Syria that were used in a pipeline to store and staging Iranian weapons and which served as a pipeline for components that support Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to speak on the matter, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about the Mossad at a public meeting Monday at a popular Washington restaurant, Café Milano, with Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency Air strike discussed on Tuesday.
This series of events is important for two reasons.
Not only is there seldom public cooperation between the two countries in targeting Syria, but it also comes at a difficult time in US foreign policy. US public cooperation in this recent Israeli air strike came after a bitter presidential election punctuated by a deadly siege of the Capitol and while the incoming Biden transition team complained about the lack of cooperation from Trump’s Pentagon.
Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of having secret links with the al-Qaeda network and imposed new sanctions on several senior Iranian officials.
Pompeo’s comments come just a week before the Trump administration leaves and appear to target Biden’s avowed desire to resume negotiations with Iran on the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
In a speech to the National Press Club, Pompeo attacked Iran over alleged secret links with al-Qaeda, citing newly released information suggesting that Tehran was home to number 2 of the group, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who reported in August according to was killed by Israelis agents.
Joint combat missions unlikely
Although Israel shares a common enemy with many CENTCOM allies in Iran, Jones said that beyond Israel’s frequent forays into Syria, he doesn’t know how many additional contributions it will make to ground or air combat.
Cooperation on the ground in Afghanistan, an Islamic nation that continues to view Israel as an enemy, is unlikely, Jones said.
“Certainly the Iranian-oriented Iraqi elements would try to use it as a negative, but they are already doing so now, so I’m not sure if it adds much to their case or makes a significant difference,” he said.
“Joining a US-led coalition with boots on the ground is a pretty big leap, even with the political advances made with some of its neighbors,” Jones said. “Of course you never know. The old Arab adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” sometimes makes strange bedfellows, but I don’t see any public use of the IDF in a coalition with Arab members, except for some really wild scenarios. “
This story includes information from the Associated Press.