President Trump, who often praises Saudi Arabia as a partner and a prolific buyer of American arms, said late Friday that the kingdom “has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing to help them.”
The deployments include two fighter squadrons, two Patriot missile batteries, an advanced air defense system, or THAAD, and an aviation headquarters unit. The Pentagon said last month that some of the units were preparing to deploy after an attack on Saudi oil facilities that U.S. officials blamed on Iran. Iranian officials have denied responsibility.
Brian Hook, a senior State Department official, said Iran’s actions have created a “new security crisis.” He acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has purchased billions of dollars in weapons from the United States and said the new U.S. deployments are “entirely defensive” in nature.
“We would very much like to see Iran stop attacking countries in the region,” he said. “That would be the easiest way for us to reduce our troop levels in the region, but this is very much focused around defensive, and it will continue to be defensive. We are not looking for a fight.”
An additional 14,000 U.S. troops have deployed to the Middle East since spring, including more than 6,000 who are part of a naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Esper declined to say whether the strike group, which is due to return home soon, will be extended but left open the possibility that other units could go in the future.
“We are taking this one step at a time,” Esper said. “We thought it was important to continue to deploy forces, to deter and defend, and to send the message to the Iranians: Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests [or] American forces or we will respond.”
The Pentagon chief added: “I’ve said time and time again: Do not mistake our restraint for weakness. If you will, you will regret that.”
Senior U.S. officials, including Esper, defended Trump’s decision this week to remove a small contingent of U.S. troops from an area of northeastern Syria near Turkey where the United States has collaborated with Kurdish forces against the Islamic State. The withdrawal came just before Turkey launched an operation against the Kurdish forces, sending in several hundred soldiers who are working with a group of rebel factions and backing them with aircraft and artillery strikes.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized the pullout as a betrayal of U.S. allies and a threat to counterterrorism efforts in the region.
Esper said the United States did not give the Turkish operation a green light but that he did not want to place U.S. troops in the middle of a long-standing dispute between Turkey and the Kurds.
Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to end U.S. involvement in “endless wars” in the Middle East. But the deployments to Saudi Arabia are expected to continue.
“Saudi Arabia is a long-standing security partner in the Middle East, and it has asked for additional support to supplement their own defenses and defend the international rules-based order,” Esper said at a news conference at the Pentagon.
The kingdom has grown increasingly unpopular among Republican and Democratic lawmakers for its role in a brutal war in Yemen that has left tens of thousands of civilians dead, many from indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes using U.S.-supplied weapons.
Saudi Arabia’s role last year in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi also has damaged its standing internationally and drawn outrage.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the new deployments “a disaster waiting to happen.”
“From Turkey to Iran to Yemen, the President’s Middle East policies have been morally and strategically bankrupt. President Trump has thrown American support behind oil-rich Saudi autocrats who he thinks ‘pays cash,’ even as he betrays our Kurdish partners who have paid with their lives in the fight against ISIS,” he said in a statement.