U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, center left, talks with Kuwaiti Defense Minister Sheik Ahmad Al-Khaled Al Sabah, center right, after Panetta arrived at Kuwait International Airport in Kuwait City on Dec. 11, 2012. (Susan Walsh/AP)

— Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Kuwait Tuesday afternoon for his first official visit to the small Persian Gulf nation, a key Middle Eastern hub for American forces that has gained strategic importance since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Panetta said he wanted to highlight Washington’s partnership with Kuwait, whose location allows the United States to maintain a robust military presence — 13,500 troops — close to Iran.

“Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the gulf helps advance the capabilities of partnering nations, deters aggression and helps ensure we’re better able to respond to crisis in the region,” Panetta told reporters during the flight from Washington.

U.S. military bases in Kuwait and Qatar, another gulf nation, became even more valuable after the Obama administration failed to negotiate a deal that would have allowed a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq after December 2011. The U.S. bases in the two countries are pillars of Washington’s deterrence policy toward Iran.

Although the Obama administration has been shifting defense resources and personnel toward Asia in recent months, Panetta said the United States is “maintaining a very strong and flexible presence” in the Middle East. He said there are close to 50,000 U.S. service members currently stationed in the area.

The top regional concern at the moment is Syria’s raging civil war. After reports early this month that Syria was moving its chemical weapons stockpiles, Panetta said U.S. officials have not seen additional evidence in recent days to suggest that embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is planning to use chemical weapons to blunt rebel advances.

“The intelligence has leveled off,” Panetta said. “We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way.” He reiterated that there would be “serious consequences” if the Assad regime were to use such weapons.

One of the primary purposes of Panetta’s trip, among the last he will make as defense secretary before retiring in the coming weeks, is to thank deployed U.S. soldiers for their service during the holiday season.

“It’s a tough time of year to be away from loved ones,” Panetta said. “Since 9/11, so many have spent so many holidays away from home.”