Any changes in the U.S. posture in the greater Middle East will hew to the National Defense Strategy and will be "globally mindful while being regionally focused," the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs said.
Speaking today at an Al-Monitor Breakfast Series event in Washington, Kathryn L. Wheelbarger also discussed the Iranian threat in the region, Russian influence in the Middle East and the defeat-ISIS coalition.
The U.S. has bulked up forces in the Persian Gulf specifically to counter "several streams of threat reporting that Iran was potentially willing to do more aggressive behavior against United States interests, allies and personnel," she said. The U.S. accelerated deployment of a carrier strike group into the region, ordered bombers there and strengthened defenses in response to the intelligence.
"It is important to note that these additional forces were not deployed to Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan," Wheelbarger said. "They were deployed to the region to shore up our positioning to specific, credible threats from Iran."
Iran and its proxies continually threaten the U.S., but this stream took on the aspect of a campaign, she said. "The forces we put in is an effort to dissuade further Iranian aggression," she added. "We do not seek conflict with Iran."
The U.S. wants a dialogue with Iran that addresses the full range of its malign behavior, from its nuclear program to sponsoring proxies to arming terror groups, she said. Wheelbarger said she believes there has been an operational pause by Iran in response to American actions in the region.
Wheelbarger shifted to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, saying that defeating the terror gang is a priority for U.S. strategy in the region, noting that the group has significant "external operations, capabilities and intentions." The group has tried to strike the United States and U.S. allies, she said, and is a prime target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The acting assistant secretary said there has been successes against the group, and that has carried over ISIS. "We work in conjunction with our partners in the region to address that shared threat," she said.
Meanwhile, Wheelbarger said, Russia continues to complicate an already complicated situation in the greater Middle East. Without Russian aid in 2015, Syrian President Bashar Assad would have been defeated. Russia has complicated Turkey’s role in the Middle East and has tried to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies, she added.
Still, she said, players in the Middle East now know that Russia is not a reliable partner. "They are in the region for their own interests, and they are not there to develop the long-term strategic partnerships that the United States prides itself on," she said. "[The Russians] are seeking to align themselves with all sides of all disputes."
Wheelbarger said the defeat-ISIS coalition is one of the most remarkable endeavors in recent years. Founded by the Obama administration and continued in the Trump administration, it is now composed of 79 countries and entities and has continued to focus on the ISIS threat in all its forms and in all the nations of the world, she noted. "We see and know this is a global threat," she said, "and that is why there is a global response."
The coalition has to continue to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Wheelbarger said, but also must aim to take down the organization and stop a new generation from being poisoned by the ideology. ISIS launched Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, and is working to infiltrate in the Sahel in Africa and to subvert groups in Afghanistan, she said.
"As we have seen time and time again, we can't bet on where the next major attack will be or where it is going to come from, so it is going to be in our best self-interest to manage that threat globally," Wheelbarger said. "From [the Defense Department's], perspective, that doesn't mean that the military around the world is going to be the primary tool. It will be those in the government that do strategic messaging, those in law enforcement. In DOD, our effort will be to help fashion a whole-of-government approach to all the branches of the group around the world."