x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US defence secretary Panetta heads to Mideast; Syria high on the agenda

Leon Panetta has begun a five-day Middle East trip to consult with the new Islamist leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and to meet long-standing allies Israel and Jordan.

ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT // The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, began a five-day Middle East trip yesterday to consult with the new Islamist leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and to meet long-standing allies Israel and Jordan.

High on the agenda at each stop is expected to be the accelerating crisis in Syria, which potentially has grave implications for Israel. Israel fears the unrest will spill over the border and that the long-quiet Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, will become a new Islamist front against Israel.

Syria has strong ties to Iran, Israel's most fearsome enemy, and to Palestinian and Lebanese militants who have warred with Israel. Jordan's worries include a potential refugee crisis on its border.

Mr Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said the trip is intended to affirm a US commitment to stability in the Middle East and North Africa at a time the US military is shifting more of its attention to Asia.

"That will require strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments," Mr Little said last week in previewing the trip.

Mr Panetta will be in Jerusalem just days after a visit by US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has been highly critical of President Barack Obama's approach to Israel.

Mr Panetta is expected to highlight US cooperation with Israel on building more effective missile defences, including the Iron Dome system that is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells. That air defence system was developed in response to Israel's 2006 war with Hizbollah militants in Lebanon, who fired thousands of rockets, mostly short-range Katyushas, into northern Israel. The US has provided US$205 million (Dh752.4m) for the project, and on Friday, Mr Obama announced the release of a further $70 million.

In Tunis, Mr Panetta plans to meet his Tunisian counterpart as well as President Moncef Marzouki, the leader of the small, secular Congress for the Republic party.

Mr Panetta is scheduled to visit the North Africa American Cemetery near Tunis, resting place for 2,841 US military members killed in the Second World War invasion and occupation of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in 1942-43. Among them is Army Air Corps pilot Foy Draper, who won a gold medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics as a member of the US 400-metre relay team. He was killed on a mission over Tunisia in January 1943.