The US never left the Middle East, a Pentagon official said Monday, but noted that the recent surge in additional American troops to the region was to deter Iran and non-state actors from exploiting the situation in Gaza and Israel.
“What we want is to prevent a broader regional conflict… and number two is to ensure that we have the forces in the Middle East region to protect US forces,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told Al Arabiya on Monday.
Ryder spoke about the uptick in attacks on US troops in the Middle East over the last two weeks. Earlier in the day, a senior defense official said American personnel had been targeted at least 23 times since October 7; however, sources on the ground told Al Arabiya English that the number is much higher.
Ryder defended the presence of American troops in Syria and Iraq, which he said was solely to fight ISIS.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the past, Iranian-backed proxies have conducted several attacks against our forces serving in those areas,” he said.
Last week, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on sites inside Syria that IRGC officials and Iran-backed fighters in the country allegedly used. Ryder said the targets destroyed were a weapons storage facility and ammunition facility “to send a clear message that we will protect and defend our forces.”
Nevertheless, he said the US does not want to escalate with Iran.
“We do not seek conflict with Iran, but we will never hesitate to protect our forces that are serving overseas doing important work,” he said.
Israel and Gaza
The Pentagon official said the US was focused on ensuring that Israel had what it needs to “protect their people.”
Washington has rushed weapons into Israel following the October 7 attack by Hamas that left over 1,000 Israeli civilians, soldiers and reservists dead. The Iran-backed group that controls Gaza also took hundreds of hostages.
The US then deployed multiple warships and ordered the augmentation of fighter jets, as well as sent additional troops out to the coast of Israel.
US officials have said these moves were meant to send a clear signal to Iran and its proxies that they should not open fronts against Israel.
Ryder said the US was going to stay focused on trying to contain the violence in Gaza. “We… are trying to prevent this from becoming a bigger conflict while, at the same time, working to protect innocent civilians,” he said.
UN agencies say Israeli bombardments have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, including over 2,000 children.
After initially refusing to condemn Israel’s targeting of civilians, Biden administration officials have changed their tone in recent days. Statements and readouts of calls between US officials and their Israeli counterparts now state the need to protect innocent civilians and abide by international law of conflict.
The US is not directing any Israeli operations or advising them on specific operational aspects of their plan, Ryder said.
The US has provided planning and intel assistance to the Israelis on hostage recovery. That support continues, according to Ryder. “There is no more important priority for us as a country than to protect our own citizens as well,” he added.
Ryder reiterated Washington’s hope to avert any escalation of the situation. “And it’s important to highlight that we’re not just speaking with the Israelis; we’re speaking with our partners throughout the region to consult, to get their advice on how best to prevent this from escalating because, again, no one wants to see a wider regional conflict, he said. “No one wins in that scenario.”
The Pentagon spokesman condemned the loss of innocent lives and called it “tragic.” US officials are encouraging their Israeli counterparts to take civilian safety into account, he said. “It’s also why you see us putting such a large emphasis on ensuring that humanitarian aid can get into Gaza.”
The US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution last week, which called for a humanitarian ceasefire in order to facilitate badly needed aid getting into the Gaza enclave.
“But at the end of the day, it’s their [Israel’s] operation. They’re going to do what they need to do to protect their citizens from Hamas,” Ryder said. “We’ll continue to talk with our Israeli partners and ensure that they are taking into account the laws of war.”