By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
MANAMA, Bahrain, Dec. 7, 2013 – In a speech before the Manama Dialogue security conference here today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the strength of America’s presence in the Middle East and called for closer cooperation with the Gulf states.
“It is only a first step,” he said. “But it could be an important step. It halts any further expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, begins to roll it back in important ways, and provides sweeping access to verify … Iran’s intentions.”
The Defense Department will not adjust its forces in the region or its military planning as a result of the interim agreement with Iran, the secretary said.
“We have bought time for meaningful negotiation, not for deception,” Hagel said. “All of us are clear-eyed … about the challenges that remain to achieving a comprehensive nuclear solution with Iran.”
He noted that in Syria, international pressure and the threat of U.S. military action created an opening for diplomacy with Russia. That led to a U.N. Security Council resolution and the involvement of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which put inspectors on the ground in Syria to oversee the removal and destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons.
“We remain on track to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons,” the secretary said. “The United States is working closely with our key allies and the international community in this process and has offered its unique technical capabilities and technology to help dispose of these weapons. … Once the destruction is complete, a major chemical weapons threat will be eliminated. This will benefit the entire region and the world.”
Issues remain in Syria, Hagel said, but he vowed to work with regional partners to find a political settlement to the conflict.
“We must also confront the rise of violent extremist groups in Syria, and we must work together to ensure that our assistance to the opposition does not fall into the wrong hands,” he cautioned. The secretary noted that humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people remains a serious concern.
“The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid for displaced Syrians, and we will continue to support Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as they provide refuge for victims of the conflict,” the secretary said. “The Syrian regime must also allow humanitarian assistance to reach the Syrian people.”
Hagel pointed out that the potent threat of U.S. military intervention helped to spur progress in resolving the nuclear and chemical weapons threats posed by Iran and Syria respectively, though each country continues to pose regional challenges.
The secretary set out the U.S. presence here: ground, air and sea forces number more than 35,000 U.S. troops in the Gulf area, he said, including “more than 10,000 forward-deployed soldiers in the region, along with heavy armor, artillery, and attack helicopters, to serve as a theater reserve and a bulwark against aggression.”
The secretary said the United States has deployed its most advanced aircraft, including F-22 fighters, throughout the region “to ensure that we can quickly respond to contingencies. Coupled with our unique munitions, no target is beyond our reach.”
The United States also employs its most advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets here to provide a continuous picture of activities in and around the Gulf, Hagel said.
“And we have fielded an array of missile defense capabilities -– including ballistic missile defense ships, Patriot [surface-to-air missile] batteries, and sophisticated radar,” he added.
To ensure freedom of navigation throughout the Gulf, the secretary said, the Navy routinely maintains a presence of more than 40 ships in the broader region, including a carrier strike group, and conducts a range of freedom-of-navigation operations.
“These operations include approximately 50 transits of the Strait of Hormuz over the past six months,” he noted.
The Navy has added five coastal patrol ships to U.S. 5th Fleet here this year, the secretary said, and has ramped up its minesweeping capabilities. DOD also will invest $580 million in a construction program to support expanding 5th Fleet capabilities, Hagel said.
“Yesterday, I visited the Navy’s new afloat forward staging base, the USS Ponce,” he said, calling the ship “a unique platform for special operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, in areas where we do not have a permanent, fixed presence.”
Hagel said during this trip, he also will meet with U.S. service members stationed at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, “where we have representatives from our [Gulf Cooperation Council] partners training and working together.”
Hagel called for closer multilateral coordination among council members, the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
He offered three avenues the United States would like to pursue toward that end:
– A unified focus on missile defense through the regional Air and Air Defense Chiefs’ Conference, which meets several times a year;
– Making the Gulf Cooperation Council as an entity eligible for the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program; and
– Convening a regular forum, beginning within six months, where U.S. and Gulf defense leaders come together annually to assess progress and threats in regional security.
These measures constitute “a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration,” Hagel said, adding that foreign military sales “will enable the GCC to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”
The secretary noted that during his last trip to the region, in April, “we finalized agreements worth nearly $11 billion that will provide access to high-end capabilities including F-15s, F-16s and advanced munitions such as standoff weapons.” These capabilities are the most advanced the United States has ever provided to the region, he said.
“We will continue to ensure that all of our allies and partners in the region – including both Israel and the Gulf States – have these advanced weapons,” the secretary pledged.
In the future, Hagel said, the Defense Department will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of regional partners to complement the strong, proven and enduring U.S. military presence in the region.
“Nations are stronger, not weaker, when they work together against common threats,” the secretary said. “Closer cooperation between the GCC and the United States is in all of our countries’ interests.”
This year’s Manama Dialogue, the ninth of its kind, drew hundreds of delegates from more than 20 countries. Other speakers at the gathering included representatives from Bahrain, the United Kingdom, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, India, Qatar, Canada and Norway.
Yesterday, Hagel met here with Saudi Arabian Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan to discuss regional issues, including Iran, Egypt and Syria. Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog said the secretary underscored in that meeting the strength of the bilateral relationship and noted that defense partnership is key in maintaining the long-standing ties between the two countries. Hagel said the United States remains committed to regional security and stability, a shared objective with Saudi Arabia, Woog reported.
The secretary indicated U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation is essential to maintaining the two nations’ shared priorities. He highlighted the Saudi purchase of F-15SA aircraft and advanced weapons as an example of future of improved interoperability and coordination between both militaries, Woog said. The defense secretary will visit Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9.
Hagel also met yesterday at the Safria Palace here with King Hamad al Khalifa of Bahrain.
Hagel and the king discussed the long history of the –U.S.-Bahrain bilateral relationship, Woog said. The secretary emphasized U.S. commitment to Gulf security, and the two exchanged views on shared regional security challenges, including Iran and the signed joint plan of action between the P5+1 and Iran.
The meeting included significant discussion of reform in Bahrain and the importance of political inclusiveness for long-term stability. The secretary thanked the king for hosting the U.S. 5th Fleet and for Bahrain’s ongoing security cooperation, Woog said.
(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: @ParrishAFPS)
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