10 takeaways from US CENTCOM’s McKenzie discussing the Middle East

Iran is a major threat in the Middle East, the Russians are opportunistic and the US has to manage this “wild West” of an area as it prepares for possible drawdowns in Afghanistan.

CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Iran is a major threat in the Middle East, the Russians are opportunistic, and the US has to manage this “Wild West” of an area as it prepares for possible drawdowns in Afghanistan and other moves, according to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of United States Central Command. He spoke remotely to an event hosted by the Middle East Institute on Wednesday and touched on many subjects, including the rise of China and the ISIS threat. Here are the top 10:

Iran is the greatest threat to stability and security in the region, and it “actively stokes instability,” McKenzie said. He cited Iran’s role in Yemen and Syria. Iran uses proxy forces, such as the Houthis or Hezbollah. It arms them with drones, precision-guided weapons and other munitions, according to reports.
McKenzie emphasized that so far there is no military side of the US maximum-pressure campaign on Iran. That means CENTCOM isn’t involved except to secure forces in the region and protect them against potential Iranian attacks.
The US is prepared for that eventuality in Iraq and Syria. It has brought Patriot air-defense systems to Iraq after Iranian ballistic-missile attacks, for instance. Jeff Seldin of Voice of America, who tweeted about the presentation, noted that McKenzie said we are not in a “period of what I would call contested deterrence.”
The general was reticent to discuss direct contact with Iran and said that Iran was so far not willing to carry out more attacks directly on US forces. In a sense, the US has deterred Iran. But that could change.
The US is entering into a strategic dialogue with Iraq. McKenzie thinks Iraq will allow US troops to remain as part of the anti-ISIS coalition. Some Iraqi politicians who are close to Iran want US troops to leave. There appears to be concern that Iraq will have a challenge facing ISIS going forward, especially if the US leaves.
ISIS is not going away, and there are concerns about is presence. There are still 10,000 ISIS members held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and 2,000 foreign ISIS fighters. It’s an issue the general said the US needs to consider as it goes forward. If the US leaves, there are questions about what happens to the detainees.
ISIS was also a threat through its global cyber presence, he said. The main US goal was to defeat ISIS, even though there are tensions with Iran. The US wants to work with Iraq to do that. ISIS is not going away. “There’s never going to be a time when ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage,” he said.
Russia and China
The CENTCOM region spans a vast area from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia and is a kind of “Wild West,” the general indicated. This is because of competition among the great powers – China, Russia and the US – as well as regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran.
Russia is one of the major powers that the US national defense strategy wants to compete with. In the Middle East, Russia supports the Syrian regime, and the general mentioned that Russia is continuing to fight ISIS. However, Russia is also involved in clashes with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in Idlib in northwest Syria, and there is now a Russian presence in eastern Syria in areas the US withdrew from in October 2019 when Turkey ordered the US to withdraw so Turkey could attack US partner forces.
Where there are Russians, the area is “pretty high-intensity,” McKenzie said. This seems to refer to areas where US and Russian forces are in proximity, such as during US patrols near Qamishli or Derik. Because US policy in eastern Syria is unclear, and officially, the US is aiding the Kurds and Syrian Democratic Forces to fight ISIS, while also securing oil, it is a mixed and complex environment where the Syrian regime, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US are all near each other.
The general said he was not one of those who “thinks Russia is a master chess player.” Basically, he seemed to indicate there is friction, but Russia was more predictable than some believe and not as much of a threat. This comes amid tensions in May, when Russian planes flew close to a US plane in the Mediterranean, and a recent incident in which a US F-22 intercepted a Russian bomber near Alaska.
Nevertheless, McKenzie noted that the Russian role in the Middle East is a fact of life, and the US must come to grips with it.
The US wants to shift resources to confront China. CENTCOM also has an area of operations that may deal with that. China’s role is important, and one must focus on China across theaters of operations, he said. That means the US must deal with China from the Middle East and other parts of Asia.
For now, China operates under the auspices of US influence or hegemony in the region, but one day Beijing may challenge that. It is making inroads, CENTCOM says. McKenzie said it was important for the US to assure its partners that the US will remain in the region. The US is already withdrawing from areas around the world, so it is unclear.
“I do worry about China quite a bit,” he said. As China establishes a “beachhead,” the US needed to keep up arms sales to apparently balance Beijing or others, he said. China has been selling drones to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as well as other countries.

Lebanese Armed Forces
McKenzie supports continued funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Recent months have seen tensions in Lebanon. In one case, Lebanese soldiers appeared to point an RPG at an Israeli tank. UN forces called UNIFIL want more vehicles for mobility to patrol the border.
Hezbollah also cut holes in the security fence earlier this year. McKenzie indicated he did not think Hezbollah in Lebanon “answers immediately when Iran calls,” according to a tweet by Jeff Seldin.
The US continues to support the Lebanese Armed Forces despite Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon. It is an imperfect choice, the general indicated.

The US could withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021, McKenzie said. But that depends on the Taliban and some conditions that need to be met. While the Taliban may not be meeting ceasefire conditions or conditions for a US withdrawal, the main US concern is not the Taliban but the ungoverned spaces or weakness of the state. That would mean if the Taliban increases control, then other bad actors will come into the vacuum. That in the past meant al-Qaeda. Now it could mean ISIS or Iranian-backed groups or new groups.

Coronavirus has been a threat to the region, and US forces have had to stop movements or reposition themselves in some cases. The pandemic also may have slowed the tempo of Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, McKenzie said. The US has carried out airstrikes on the group to deter it from further rocket attacks that have killed US-led coalition forces.
The Taliban have also suffered from the pandemic. Iran has sought to make sure its forces are not affected, according to comments at the session.

The Syrian regime has been pressuring Syrian rebel groups in Idlib. But it could turn its attention to focusing on US-backed groups in eastern Syria or on the US base at al-Tanf. The US would deal with whatever might happen in the area of Deir Ezzor, McKenzie said. In 2018, Russian contractors working with the Syrian regime attacked the US-backed SDF in this area and were beaten back. The message was that the US would beat the regime back again. The US has downed a regime plane and carried out airstrikes on the Syrian regime in the past.
The US won’t remain in Syria forever, the general said. “I do not know how long we are going to remain,” he added.

Small drone swarms are a concern for the US. There are many cheap drones available, McKenzie said, adding that he was worried about the ability to “protect against swarms of those aircraft.” Drones have proliferated throughout the region, and Iran has developed numerous new drone models and used them to attack Saudi Arabia.
New conflicts in Syria and Libya have also seen numerous drones used and shot down. “At an operational level, that’s a worrisome thing,” McKenzie said about drone swarms. “It’s not a new form of warfare, but it’s a new component.”

Iran has no interest in ending the war. McKenzie mentioned the possibility of trying to reduce Iran’s patronage for the Houthis. In the last year, US naval ships have intercepted at least two dhows moving weapons to Yemen.
A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen since 2015. The war is a “bleeding ulcer,” McKenzie said. The Saudis want it resolved, but Iran does not, seemed to be the point he was making.