US Defense Secretary LIoyd Austin arrived in Jordan on Sunday at the start of a Middle East tour that will also take him to Egypt and Israel. Before his departure from the US, Austin wrote on Twitter that he would meet key leaders in the region and “reaffirm the US commitment to regional stability and advancing the shared interests of our allies and partners.”
A senior US Defense Department official said ahead of Austin’s visit that discussions with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan would focus on advancing multilateral security cooperation with integrated air and missile defence. In Israel, he would debate the growing threat that Iran poses to regional stability, the official said.
“Austin will also raise concerns about a surge in violence in the occupied West Bank that has alarmed Egypt and Jordan and discuss diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions ahead of Muslim and Jewish religious holidays,” he said.
He said that Austin’s trip to the Middle East in the first week of March seeks to reaffirm the US commitment to the security and stability of its three strategic allies — Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.
“Secretary Austin will convey the enduring US commitment to the Middle East and provide reassurance to our partners in Jordan, Egypt, and Israel that the United States remains committed to supporting their defence and increasing and strengthening the strategic partnerships with each of these countries,” the official said.
While in talks in the Middle East, Austin would convey his belief and that of the Defence Department that the best path for sustainable and effective security in the Middle East is through integration and multilateral security cooperation among partners, he said.
Austin would address the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Israel about the tremendous opportunities that the US represents because of “cutting-edge innovation, emerging technology, shared assessments of what the threats are facing our partners in the region and that now is the time to improve collective and shared defence,” the official said.
Also central to the discussions will be the “full constellation of Iran-associated threats,” the official said, adding that these include Iran’s arming, training, and funding of violent proxy groups, aggression at sea, cyber-threats, its ballistic missile programme, and drone attacks.
“Every partner in every capital Austin visits in the Middle East will talk about their concerns related to these threats,” the official said. “Austin will consult with those partners on how these threats can be pushed back and undermined.”
According to the Western media, Austin’s visit shows that the US is determined to keep its foothold in the region and that the war in Ukraine and the tensions in relations with Russia and China will not distract Washington from advancing its close military relations with three of its key allies in the region.
“It is a visit to convey a message of reassurance about America’s commitment to the security of its allies in Jordan, Egypt, and Israel and that it will not let Russia and China gain a foothold in the Middle East,” said one Western newspaper.
Austin’s visit to Egypt is the first since he took office in January 2021. However, he met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Washington last December and also spoke on the telephone with Egypt’s Defence Minister Mohamed Zaki last August to thank Egypt for its leadership role in the region and vital assistance in securing the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
President Al-Sisi visited Washington last December to attend the US-Africa Leaders Summit. He also visited the Pentagon and met with Austin, who welcomed him by saying that “Egypt is not only a leader in the Middle East and Africa, but also on the world stage.”
Austin noted that the US and Egypt are marking 100 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Al-Sisi and Austin discussed a number of issues during their meeting. “The administration greatly appreciates Egypt’s leadership and cooperation in achieving our shared objectives,” Austin said in the meeting. “We have seen that leadership and Egypt’s courage in achieving peace in the region and the vital assistance that Egypt provided for securing the ceasefire in Gaza.”
Austin thanked President Al-Sisi for Egypt’s assuming the command of the Combined Task Force 153 that ensures the security of communications in the Red Sea. “The United States remains committed to ensuring Egypt has the capabilities to defend its people and its territory, and that we will continue to work with Egypt to strengthen interoperability, integrated air and missile defence, and maritime security,” Austin said.
President Al-Sisi thanked Austin for his welcome at the meeting in December and said that Egypt and the US had much in common and that Egypt was keen to strengthen its strategic partnership with the US in the areas of defence and security in the light of the threats facing the Middle East region.
He said that he and Austin had had many constructive conversations when the latter served as the commander of US Central Command.
A presidential statement said at that time that Egypt and the US had agreed to push their joint military relations forward, given that these are the cornerstone of US-Egypt ties. These relations were essential to achieving stability and security in the Middle East, the statement said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly