Defense Secretary Gates Cites Concerns About Syria, Iran

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed prospects for reconciliation in Iraq, the Middle East peace process, disruptive Syrian activities in the region and Iran’s nuclear ambitions as part of his ongoing trip through the Middle East that included stops in Egypt, Israel and Iraq.

In Israel, Gates emphasized the importance of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program through an existing diplomatic process that “appears to be working.”  His April 18 response at the Israeli Defense Ministry followed an observation made by Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz that Iran poses a threat to Israel, the region and the free world. 

Gates said his arrival in Israel only four months after becoming defense secretary “illustrates the importance I attach to our relationship with Israel.”

Besides discussing the long-standing U.S.-Israeli military relationship, Gates also talked about concerns related to Syria.  Even though the United States and Syria have diplomatic relations, it does not mean the United States approves of Syrian activities, he said.  He expressed concern about Syria’s support for the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon and its blind eye to suicide bombers crossing into Iraq where they are killing Iraqi and coalition partners.

In advance of his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq, April 19, Gates talked to reporters in Tel Aviv, Israel, about pressing problems in Iraq where al-Qaida and terrorist affiliates are “killing their countrymen” who are innocent Iraqi men, women and children.  It is part of the terrorists’ efforts, he said, to increase violence, disrupt the political process and portray the new Baghdad security plan as a failure.  But, the secretary said, “[W]e intend to persist to show that it is not” [a failure].

In a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Gates said they discussed the need to support and strengthen the Iraqi government.  He expressed his appreciation to Mubarak for his willingness to host Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Cairo in April as well as his constructive role in organizing and hosting a follow-on conference of regional neighbors and the Iraq Compact Group at the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, May 3-4.  (See related article.)

While in Cairo, Gates reviewed what he described as the existing “robust defense relationship” between the United States and Egypt, which includes more than $1 billion in annual U.S. military aid to help build the capacity of the Egyptian armed forces.


During an April 18 speech in Cairo to the American Chamber of Commerce, Gates said that the United States continues “to maintain and strengthen the ties between our military establishments through education, training, and exchanges.”

He added that the American military officer corps has benefited and learned from its association with Egypt’s military, which Gates described as “one of the region’s most professional and effective forces.”

The defense secretary also cited Egypt’s operational support for joint training exercises.  The two nations have worked together for more than 15 years on Operation Bright Star, an annual training exercise that now has grown to include participation by forces from many nations.

Gates said Egypt and the United States share regional goals, including:

• A unified, stable and prosperous Iraq;

• A just and comprehensive peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people;

• An Iran that does not attempt to dominate region by subverting its neighbors and by building nuclear weapons; and

• An end to the growth and influence of extremist terrorist networks and sectarian militia organizations that, in the words of the former head of U.S. Central Command General John Abizaid, have become “the curse of the region.”

Egypt’s engagement, support and leadership on a variety of fronts will help “open up new possibilities for the people of the Middle East,” Gates said.

As part of a broader message, he said:  “We encourage Iraq’s Arab neighbors to use their influence to dampen homegrown insurgency and alleviate sectarian conflict.”  And, he said, nations such as Syria and Iran that have not been good neighbors to Iraq, “should start becoming part of the regional solution that encourages political reconciliation and reduces violence.”

Transcripts of Gates’ speech in Egypt and his media appearances in Tel Aviv and Cairo are available on the Defense Department Web site.