With just days left in his presidency and in a bid to solidify Arab-Israeli efforts against Iran before Joe Biden takes office, Donald Trump has shaken up the headquarters overseeing U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday evening that Trump has ordered U.S. Central Command to add Israel to the list of nations for which it has responsibility.
Moving Israel from U.S. European Command responsibilty to CENTCOM was once a non-starter because of long-simmering tensions between Israel and its regional neighbors, who have been CENTCOM’s allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. It is the crowning piece of Trump’s efforts to stitch together disparate nations with a common enemy, following the signing of the Abraham Accords, in which Israel normalized relations with former enemies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel will become the 21st nation under CENTCOM’s purview, joining as it is increasingly cooperating with the Sunni-led Gulf States in an alliance of convenience against Shia-led Iran.
CENTCOM, led by Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., deferred questions to the Pentagon Friday morning.
“The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors subsequent to the Abraham Accords has provided a strategic opportunity for the United States to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said in a media release Friday morning. “Israel is a leading strategic partner for the United States, and this will open up additional opportunities for cooperation with our U.S. Central Command partners while maintaining strong cooperation between Israel and our European allies.”
The statement did not offer specifics on what role Israel will play in the new structure. Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to requests for additional information.
There are good reasons to make the long-debated change, said one former CENTCOM chief of staff.
“I think moving Israel to CENTCOM makes sense from a U.S. policy perspective in that many Israeli issues are tied to the other countries in CENTCOM’s AOR,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Mike Jones, who served at CENTCOM chief of staff in 2011 under then-commander James Mattis, told Military Times in a series of text messages late Thursday night.
That said, there are many hurdles to overcome, said Jones.
“The argument against has always been ‘it’s hard to have credibility with two countries who are enemies,’” said Jones. “If one knows you have close relationships with their enemies, it’s hard to build personal trust and get really full disclosure conversations.”
Things have changed greatly, however, in the past decade.
“When I was in uniform I had to have two passports because Arab countries would not let you in if you had an Israeli stamp in your passport,” said Jones. “Maybe all the Arab states are OK with Israel now with the recognition and movement toward normalization. Note [Saudi Arabia] doesn’t appear to be there yet.”
While the move is good for the U.S., Jones said it’s not always so good for our partners.
“It’s the same reason CENTCOM has Pakistan and Pacific-Indo Command has India,” he said. “From our perspective, it would be more convenient to have Pakistan and India in the same AOR. Not so much from their perspective.”
CENTCOM oversees military operations and international military cooperation in one of the world’s most restive regions, which stretches east from Egypt to Kazakhstan. There are currently about 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Americans serve alongside troops from many nations.
During the long wars in those nations, CENTCOM’s allies worked together in the region and at CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. In addition to the countries in the region, there is an international coalition of some 50 nations that joined together after 9/11. The nations have fought and died together, communicate on a common system, meet frequently to discuss the different tasks they will perform and sometimes even share intelligence. Israel maintains peaceful yet often very tense relations with neighbors and CENTCOM ally nations Egypt and Jordan. It has had a frequently hostile relationship with neighboring Lebanon, also a CENTCOM ally nation, and continues to conduct air strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed targets.
What role will Israel play?
Will the Israelis put boots on the ground, or planes in the air in the region?
In some ways, they already have been, Jones pointed out.
“They are already doing strikes in the AOR — Syria the other day,” said Jones, adding that he has no inside information about events in the region. “They’ve previously gone into Iran, Lebanon, etc. Obviously there is a high degree of cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on defense issues.”
Earlier this week, Israeli warplanes apparently targeted positions and arms depots of Iran-backed forces in Syria. At least 57 fighters were killed and dozens of others wounded.
Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria is nothing new. But what is new about this episode is how those strikes were carried out.
A senior U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the attack told The Associated Press that the airstrikes were carried out with intelligence provided by the United States. The official said the strikes targeted a series of warehouses in Syria that were being used in a pipeline to store and stage Iranian weapons, as well as serving as a pipeline for components supporting Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. official, who requested anonymity to speak about the matter, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Tuesday’s airstrike with Yossi Cohen, chief of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, at a public meeting in the popular Washington restaurant Café Milano on Monday.
This series of events is significant for two reasons.
Not only is it a rare incidence of publicized cooperation between the two countries over choosing targets in Syria, but it comes at a fraught moment in U.S. foreign policy. American public cooperation with this latest Israeli airstrike came after a bitter presidential election, punctuated by a deadly siege of the Capitol and all while the incoming Biden transition team has complained of a lack of cooperation by Trump’s Pentagon.
Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of having secret ties with the al-Qaida network and imposed new sanctions on several senior Iranian officials.
Pompeo’s comments come just a week before the Trump administration leaves office and appeared aimed at Biden’s stated desire to resume negotiations with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
In a speech to the National Press Club just, Pompeo attacked Iran for alleged secret ties with al-Qaida, citing newly declassified intelligence suggesting Tehran harbored the group’s No. 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who was killed in August, reportedly by Israeli agents.
Joint combat missions unlikely
Though Israel has a common enemy with many CENTCOM ally nations in Iran, Jones said that beyond Israel’s frequent forays into Syria, he does not 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 see Israel as an enemy is unlikely, said Jones.
“Certainly the Iranian-leaning Iraqi elements would try to use it as a negative, but they already do that now so I’m not sure it adds a whole lot to their case or makes a significant difference,” he said.
“As for being part of a U.S.-led coalition, with boots on the ground, that’s a pretty big leap, even with the political progress that’s been made with some of their neighbors,” said Jones. “You never know of course. The old Arab saying ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ makes for some strange bedfellows sometimes, but I don’t see a public deployment by the IDF in a coalition with Arab members short of some really wild scenarios.”
This story contains information from the Associated Press.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.