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Hagel Stresses Regional Cooperation on Middle East Issues

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2013 – The United States faces “astounding challenges” surrounding its strategic interests in the Middle East, but is working with allies and partners to comprehensively address the political, economic and security uncertainty, and the threats of extremism and proliferation that beset the region, America’s defense chief said today.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's 2013 Soref Symposium in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2013. Hagel addressed the U.S. defense policy in the Middle East and discussed his recent trip to the region. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates in late April. Tonight he offered an audience his views on the issues he discussed with those countries’ leaders. During a speech at the 2013 Soref Symposium, an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hagel said America’s Middle East strategy is founded on and framed around its commitment to Israel.  

“Israel is America's closest friend and ally in the Middle East,” Hagel said, noting that he attended a series of meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon.

During those meetings, “I conveyed our continued commitment to enhancing defense cooperation with Israel - which has reached unprecedented levels in recent years,” Hagel said.

A core principle of U.S.-Israel security cooperation is America's commitment to what Hagel called Israel's “capacity to defeat any threat or combination of threats from state or non-state actors.”

The Defense Department works closely with Isreal’s Ministry of Defense to develop and field the versatile range of advanced capabilities Israel needs to defend its people and interests, Hagel said. The rocket and missile defense efforts Iron Dome, Arrow, and David's Sling demonstrate the department’s involvement, he said, but DOD has also worked for more than a year to increase Israel's options against to a range of other threats.

“These efforts culminated in our announcement last month that the United States has agreed to release a package of advanced new capabilities, including anti-radiation missiles and more effective radars for [Israel’s] fleet of fighter jets, KC-135 refueling aircraft and the V-22 Osprey,” Hagel said. “Along with Israel's status as the only Mid-Eastern nation participating in the Joint Strike Fighter program, this new capabilities package will significantly upgrade their qualitative military edge.”

Hagel noted Israel’s security, like America’s, also relies on strong U.S. partnerships with other regional countries from Jordan and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In meeting with those countries’ leaders, he said, he frequently discussed two other factors he termed central to current U.S. Middle East strategy: ongoing turmoil in Syria and Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region.

“Syria's civil war is putting its stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons at risk, and the escalation of violence threatens to spill across its borders,” Hagel said.

Hagel said that while he was in Jordan, which borders Syria, “I reassured the Jordanians that the United States is committed to the stability of Jordan, and to deepening our close defense cooperation and joint contingency planning with the Jordanian military.”

The civil war in Syria was a focus of his discussions in Amman, the secretary said. Hagel summarized U.S. involvement: organizing and applying sanctions against the Assad regime; providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, which now totals nearly $510 million; and giving non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

“We are also urging Russia and China to do more to help resolve this conflict, because it is also clearly in their interests to end the war,” he said.

Hagel noted that Secretary of State John Kerry, in Moscow this week, announced along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that “they will seek to convene an international conference, with representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, to determine how to implement a political transition in Syria.”

Using the full range of tools, he said, the United States will continue to work toward achieving its goal of ending the violence and helping the Syrian people transition to a post-Assad authority.

“This will help restore stability, peace, and hope for all Syrian people,” he said. “That goal is shared by our allies in the region - not only those bordering Syria, but also our partners in the Gulf.”

In Saudi Arabia and UAE, he said, “Concerns over Iran's support for the Assad regime, its destabilizing activities, and its nuclear program were at the top of the agenda.”

The secretary noted President Barack Obama has stated U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I stressed that point during my discussions in the Gulf,” Hagel noted, adding that “building a cooperative defense network” is a key pillar of U.S. efforts against Iranian threats -- “raising the military capabilities of our partners in the Gulf who share our commitment to regional security and our concerns about Iran and violent extremism on the Arabian Peninsula.”

Agreements finalized during his stops in Saudi Arabia and UAE will give those nations “access to significant new capabilities,” Hagel noted: Saudi Arabia will buy 84 Boeing F-15SA fighter aircraft, and the UAE plans to purchase 25 F-16 Desert Falcons.

“Along with other common efforts with Gulf States in areas such as missile defense, this new arrangement ensures that we are coordinating effectively against Iran and other shared security challenges,” Hagel said.

The secretary emphasized that U.S. strategy sees the Middle East as critical to its security interests, and a robust presence will remain.

“We have made a determined effort to position high-end air, missile defense, and naval assets to deter Iranian aggression and respond to other contingencies,” he said, noting U.S. F-22 fighters, ballistic missile defense ships and sophisticated radars, mine countermeasure assets, and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft are all part of the nation’s regional presence.

“Even as we put our presence on a more sustainable long-term footing, our capabilities in the region will far exceed those that were in place September 11, 2001,” he said. “Our defense relationships are also much stronger and far more robust.”

The Middle East, made up of very different nations, faces a number of common challenges from Iran, Syria, and the continuing threat of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, he said.

“These common challenges must be met through the force of coalitions of common interests, which include Israel and our other allies in the region,” Hagel added. The most enduring and effective solutions to the challenges facing the region are political, not military, he said, and America's role is to influence and shape the course of events through diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, intelligence and security tools “in coordination with all of our allies.”

During his travels in the region, Hagel said, “I thought about what’s possible … if these democratic transitions in the Middle East can succeed, and if a sustainable and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ultimately achieved.”

That would bring new possibilities to an old region, the secretary noted.

The best hope for Middle Eastern stability is for countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria to transition to democratic rule, supported by institutions and legal frameworks that respect human life and liberties, he said.

“To assist these nations in achieving these goals, the United States will remain engaged in helping shape the new order, but we must engage wisely,” Hagel said. “This will require a clear understanding of our national interests, our limitations, and an appreciation for the complexities of this unpredictable, contradictory, yet hopeful region of the world.”

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