Despite Change in Foreign Policy, Pentagon Tap Still Flows to Middle East

Recently Passed US Defense Bill Offers Earlier Level of Support, with Interesting Provisions

As US President Joe Biden continues his foreign policy shift away from the Middle East, Pentagon money will continue to flow to the region.

The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2022 focuses on preparing for strategic competition with China and Russia. With a price tag of $768.2 billion — an additional $24 billion over the Biden administration’s original request — many of the funding arrangements designated for the Middle East are comparable to last year’s budget. , despite the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the end of offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen and the end of the combat mission in Iraq, all of which took place in the last year .

With respect to Iraq, the 2022 NDAA positions the Counter Islamic State Training and Equipment Fund (CTEF) to receive $345 million for Iraq, plus an additional $177 million for Syria. Washington has led an anti-ISIS coalition with dozens of other countries since 2014, and although the terrorist organization’s threat level is no longer what it used to be, US and Iraqi counterterrorism agencies are still concerned about the possibility that ISIS is launching low-level attacks. technological campaigns of violence.

“This funding line is certainly consistent with last year’s, with a large portion going towards peshmerga allocations. [the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi Armed Forces] and the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service. There is a feeling in Congress, however, that the CTEF pot of money is not permanent and they want to wean it off over time,” Grant Rumley, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line.

“The United States is still able to train and equip these forces, advise and assist. If that money was dropped, it would hurt our partners,” said Rumley, who served in the Donald Trump and Biden administrations as a Middle East policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Deputy – Secretary of Defense. for Politics.

Last month, Islamic State fighters killed four Peshmerga soldiers and a civilian, using hit-and-run tactics in nighttime attacks.

US lawmakers, meanwhile, want to see a Biden administration game plan for Syria — something that has been elusive for several recent US presidents. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) inserted a measure in the NDAA requiring U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit a report on the administration’s vision for a political endgame to the Syrian conflict and on any diplomatic maneuvering meant getting there.

“On Syria, it is difficult to see an end game. But even having an idea of ​​a strategy would help. So this requirement could be illuminating and help force the administration to think more about the issue,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, told The Media Line. O’Hanlon specializes in US defense strategy, the use of military force, and US national security policy.

Rumley agrees, saying, “There’s a bipartisan desire to hear exactly what Syria’s real strategy is, and demanding a report is probably the most advanced way to determine what the strategy is,” and to add: “It is not that the White House does not have a strategy, but it is a strategy of damage control, focused on maintaining humanitarian aid and the desire to limit the capacity of the actors of the ‘IS to enact [their cause] in Syria.”

The NDAA is also demanding a report on State Department efforts to prevent Arab states from renormalizing relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“There is a difference between speaking out against a normalization campaign and actively campaigning against it. The White House has yet to indicate where they will be along that spectrum,” Rumley said.

This week’s terror attack on Abu Dhabi by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, and the resulting show of US and allied support for the Emiratis, shines a further spotlight on the coalition’s brutal struggle. led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis. The NDAA is asking the Biden administration to provide a report on whether Saudi Arabia participated in offensive airstrikes inside Yemen that resulted in civilian casualties. It also prohibits the in-flight refueling of any non-American aircraft engaged in this conflict.

There has been fierce opposition to the war in Yemen, and while Biden last year announced an end to offensive support for the Saudi coalition, he maintained that the United States would continue to provide defense support to the Saudis. .

“Ending our broader support would do more harm than good. A provision ending some overall military support for the Saudis was removed, even though the House and Senate approved those provisions. Sanctions related to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi have also been lifted. I think there’s a bipartisan consensus that we can’t burn this relationship down from a security perspective,” Rumley said.

Other notable measures that were deleted from the final text of the bill include the repeal of the 2002 Iraq War Authorization and the requirement that the administration release a report on the detention and harassment of U.S. citizens. by Egypt.

“The removal of the provision to revoke the 2002 Iraq War Authorization was essentially symbolic anyway. Meanwhile, lobbying Egypt on human rights is usually smart, but it needs to be done in a meaningful way to be constructive. I’m not sure the NDAA is the right place. Maybe the foreign aid funding bill is better,” O’Hanlon said.

The NDAA also provided measures to bolster Washington’s support for Greece’s, Cyprus’ and Israel’s roles in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a mandate for a select Senate group to liaise with those countries’ parliamentary counterparts on regional security and energy issues. Yet the Biden administration recently signaled to Greece that it would no longer support the EastMed gas pipeline, a joint Greek-Cypriot-Israeli gas pipeline project directly linking Eastern Mediterranean energy resources to mainland Greece via Cyprus and Crete. . The State Department cited the project’s economic viability and environmental concerns.

Interestingly, a provision in the NDAA prohibits funding of the Moroccan military in multilateral exercises with the United States until the Pentagon determines that Rabat is committed to seeking a mutually acceptable political solution in Western Sahara. .

Officially, the United States still recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over disputed Western Sahara – a position initially taken by the Trump White House as part of a brokered deal to renormalize relations between Israel and Morocco.

While the Biden administration hasn’t been as enthusiastic in supporting the arrangement and has been pushed back by some influential lawmakers, the Pentagon, under Biden, held joint military exercises with Morocco last year as part of of the largest multinational military exercise of the US Africa Command. , African lion.

There is a possibility for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who can circumvent the ban if he proves to Congress that it would endanger the national security of the United States. Lawmakers asked the administration to brief them on the issue in early March.

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