Joseph Votel: A US-Saudi defence pact is mutually vital

The former commander of the US Central Command tells Al Majalla about the changing nature of war, terrorists’ use of technology, and the role of the US in the Middle East

Speaking to Al Majalla, former CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel reflects on the region’s most recent turbulence, including the first-ever direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran.
Axel Rangel Garcia
Speaking to Al Majalla, former CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel reflects on the region’s most recent turbulence, including the first-ever direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran.

Joseph Votel: A US-Saudi defence pact is mutually vital

General Joseph Votel is well-acquainted with the Middle East. During his four decades of service in the US Army, including his time commanding the US Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2016-19, he got to know the Gulf, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name but some. Retiring after the territorial collapse of the Islamic State in Syria, he has since looked back on a time of conflicts and alliances while maintaining his connections with decision-makers in both the Middle East and Washington.

Speaking to Al Majalla, the four-star general reflected on the region’s most recent turbulence, including the first-ever direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran in April, in which the US intervened to down Iranian rockets. Unlike some, Votel does believe that Iran sought to do Israel harm and notes that Israel’s response—bombing Iranian facilities in the strategic city of Isfahan—highlighted the yawning gap in capabilities between the two foes.

Scanning the horizon, he worries about the use of Artificial Intelligence in warfare by enemy combatants, seeking to incorporate this into drone technology. On Gaza, Votel thinks Israel’s issue will be a “lack of ground partners”, while his views on the Houthis in Yemen are linked to his views on Iran, which, in turn, informs his thoughts on a possible win-win Saudi-American defence agreement.

Below are key excerpts from the interview:

On the use of drones, Ukraine and Russia have shown them to be effective since 2022, but in April, when the Iranians attacked Israel with more than 330 drones and missiles, they were ineffective. What are your thoughts?

I think drones and missiles are very effective and a serious threat that we always have to be prepared for. In April, the Iranians came up against a very sophisticated air defence system, not only of the Israelis but of the Americans and other partners. They had the ability to detect and then stop those attacks very effectively.

Having these effective defensive measures and a willingness to use all the resources available to defeat this threat may not necessarily be the case in Ukraine or elsewhere. So, while April's lesson is the importance of air defence, it does not minimise the threat of drones and missiles. They are serious threats that we must always consider.

Some thought the Iranians may not have used the most sophisticated drones that they have. What do you think?

I would expect that they did. They employed 300 missiles and drones, which is considerable. They have more, but in this first-ever state-on-state interchange, I believe they were using their very best systems. I do not know why it would be in Iran’s interest to use something other than their best systems. It just came up against a very effective air defence architecture that was able to defeat it successfully.

Some observers suggest Iran did not want to really hurt Israel but test it and send a political message...

They certainly accomplished the testing, but if they just wanted to probe and do the minimal amount to send a message that they were responding, they could have done that with a lot fewer missiles and drones. The sheer volume really concerns me.

My initial thought was that they were trying to probe and do the minimum to respond, but as I learned more about it, as I spoke to more and more people, I became convinced that this was a serious effort intended to inflict some level of damage and harm on Israel. It is hard for me to reconcile 300 missiles and drones and not consider that to be a very serious attack.

Did this attack show a military gap between them?

It did. What demonstrates it even more is the Israeli counter-strike, when they fired a limited number of missiles at critical locations near Iran’s nuclear facilities and penetrated Iranian air defence. That clearly indicated that there are still some significant differences between their militaries.

Are you confident that the Israelis attacked Isfahan?

I am comfortable that this current exchange, which started on 1 April 2024, has largely been resolved now. The bigger issue is that the state-on-state attacks between Israel and Iran have raised the level of risk in the region. Hopefully, they have not established a new red line that state-on-state attacks are acceptable. I am hopeful that the exchange will move us back into an area of more acceptable risk for the region and certainly for these two countries.

Are we back to the old rules of the game, or have new rules been established?

It is yet to be determined whether there are new rules or whether we have returned to the old ones.

Do you mean that we are either ‘back to proxy wars’ or else we are in a new era of direct confrontation?

Yes, the so-called shadow war or proxy war, in which the parties conduct operations outside their own territory but are still focused on one another.

Read more: Shadow war no more: How will the new Iran-Israel power dynamic affect the region?

On the Israelis’ assassinations of key figures in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon, we keep hearing about the role of ‘voice recognition’. How important is this new technology in terms of warfare?

Technology has always made a difference in warfare, and that is the case here, too. I would not go into too much detail about the technology, but if there is a vulnerability that can be exploited, technology can help add precision and accuracy, which can help limit collateral effects. I expect that we will continue to see the use of this kind of technology in these types of operations.

The Israelis, Ukrainians, and Russians are using AI. This is the coming technology. The ability to use it to sort through huge amounts of data to help identify targets and hopefully increase accuracy and precision is definitely a trend that we are seeing in warfare.

Something I am really concerned about is the link between AI and drones. We must pay very close attention to this.

General Joseph Votel, former CENTCOM commander

How will these new technologies affect warfare?

You will see more militaries and nations trying to acquire these technologies and then trying to figure out the best way to employ them in the military realm. Something I am really concerned about is the link between AI and drones. We must pay very close attention to this because it is a significant development.

In the US, we are having a debate about AI. This extends to the military, about keeping humans in the loop and making sure humans are the decision-makers. But the cat is out of the bag here. The technology exists, and people see what it can do. Terrorist groups are among those trying to acquire AI. This is a challenge because AI is commercially available. You can buy it. If modern militaries can use it, so can violent extremists. The proliferation of AI is a concern.

Could you please elaborate on this merger between AI and drones?

As military leaders, humans are responsible for the decisions made by our forces and assets. Despite the use of AI for targeting and similar purposes, there is a high probability that a human will be in the loop in the United States and other modern Western militaries. My concern is that this may not always be the case, for instance, with violent extremist organisations or militaries that are not guided by values or the law of armed conflict and who do not keep human military leaders in the loop.

I can envision a time when, for example, the Russian military might use AI drones in Ukraine without concern or regard for the effects of collateral damage or confirmatory information. Those who do not adhere to international law or ethical oversight could really take advantage of this to devastating effect.

Read more: A look at Israel's AI-generated 'mass assassination factory' in Gaza

Who is legally responsible for crimes committed by an AI drone?

I am just answering for myself: even though you are relying on technology, there is a human, a leader, who is actually responsible. That is the difference, and it is one we have to pay very close attention to.

How concerned are you that terrorists could use AI in their attacks?

Absolutely, I am concerned. Something we learned from fighting terrorist organisations over a long period of time is that they are very savvy and capable, always looking for an edge for opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities in our systems so they can perpetrate their attacks. They would do the same thing with drones and AI. We saw it with social media, how IS used social media to recruit, bringing tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria during the height of their campaign there. That is a good example of how terrorist groups can leverage technology.

Look at IS Khorasan exploiting vulnerabilities in the Russian migration system to get their fighters in place to perpetrate that horrendous attack in Moscow. We have to give these groups credit for learning and trying to exploit every opportunity.

How should we prepare?

When it comes to terrorists, we cannot take our eye off the ball. In the United States, there is debate about our need and desire to focus on the threat of China, which drives a lot of our decision-making, but we cannot take our eye off terrorism. Our intelligence communities must be attuned. We must also have good relationships with our partners so that we can share information with them.

We must insist on protocols for advanced technology and bring attention to companies and countries that are exploiting this type of technology, providing it to people who can use it for nefarious purposes. Those people have to be exposed and held accountable. There are a variety of things that we can do, but it starts with not forgetting to pay attention to this threat. It is as important as other things.

Axel Rangel Garcia

War in Gaza has been ongoing for almost seven months. Israel has not achieved its goals, and Hamas hasn't given up. How do you view the situation from a military standpoint?

Israel is the one to answer whether or not they achieved their goals. I think their military operations have been successful in preventing Hamas from being an effective organisation that can perpetrate attacks. That has been accomplished. From the beginning, we knew this was going to be an extraordinarily difficult fight. This is a very savvy enemy operating in a labyrinth of underground tunnels, mixing among the population, with a powerful ideology that continues gaining local and international support.

One challenge for the Israelis is that they do not have any partners on the ground who can assist them. As they went through northern Gaza, Gaza City, then moved on, nobody stayed behind to ensure security, so it gave an opportunity for Hamas to return. It is important that they hold and maintain control of these areas as they go through and clear them. That has been a real challenge.

In terms of the humanitarian situation, there has literally been nowhere for the 2.4 million Palestinians to move to. They have been moving around inside Gaza. This has been a very difficult challenge for the Israelis, who have not always paid as much attention to the humanitarian situation. American leaders are very concerned about that. They acknowledge the need for Israel to go after Hamas, but they also understand the importance of taking care of the population.

It is important for Israel to operate in a way that begins to separate the population from Hamas. That, I am afraid, is not occurring. It is making the situation worse, and it is not creating a better situation for Israel. Israel has to remember that, at the end of all this, they have to live in this neighbourhood with Palestinians as their neighbours. Their conduct—while there has been some military progress—overall, strategically, has not gone as well as I think they or anybody else would have hoped, and it is likely to grind on for some time.

In the Gulf, the Houthis are targeting world trade routes, and every now and then, the Americans and British target the Houthis. How do you see it?

What the Houthis are doing is tantamount to maritime terrorism or economic terrorism. The ships they are targeting are just transiting international waters, as they always have. The Houthis have completely changed how the commercial world moves goods, trying to create a new normal. It is extraordinarily bad and has to be addressed.

The United States and a few other countries, the UK in particular, have stepped up and taken action to begin to limit this, but there is more to be done. We cannot allow a new norm to be established so that ships can go around Africa. That is not acceptable. We cannot allow an organisation or nation to shut down international waterways because they see it as in their interest.

What more could be done?

We have to go after Iran and their facilitation routes more effectively, to cut off the supplies and go after the stockpiles that the Houthis have. That will hopefully begin to limit their ability to have an impact. We also have to build a coalition of partners in the region to help provide security. Besides Bahrain, not many Gulf countries have actually stepped up and provided assistance in this effort. So, we have a variety of things to do.

It is difficult but necessary to preserve fundamental rights: freedom of commerce and freedom of navigation through international waters. Our inability to turn this around will be a long-term problem.

It is important for Israel to operate in a way that separates the population from Hamas. That, I am afraid, isn't occurring.

General Joseph Votel, former CENTCOM commander

Why do you think other Gulf states did not want to join the coalition?

I cannot explain it and am a little disappointed by it. They are all going to see the impact. Saudi Arabia has ports along the Red Sea, Egypt depends on ships moving through the Suez Canal as a major revenue generator for their economy, and Jordan is also impacted.

There is now a decrease in humanitarian supplies to Sudan, where they are desperately needed, exacerbating a horrible situation here. So, I really cannot explain it. Perhaps they are all waiting to see how it gets resolved or using it to demonstrate their support for the Palestinians. I cannot explain it, but it is to their own detriment. It is not the United States that will feel the long-term impacts; it is the countries in the region, so it is in their interest to be a part of the effort to help solve the problem.

What is your view on a potential US-Saudi defence deal or pact?

The United States should have strong defence and diplomatic ties with all our countries in the region. Historically, that has been important to us. It is important to us now, and it will be important to us in the future. We have vital interests here that must be defended, so it is important to have good relations, partnerships, and arrangements.

That starts with Saudi Arabia, as kind of the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and, of course, the significance it plays in Islam. Having a good, strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is in their interest and ours, so I am very supportive of that.

As you say, the Americans have shifted their focus towards China. Some Arab countries complain that the Americans are not investing in the region. Can Americans focus on China and stay fully engaged in the Gulf?

Yes. Our military is big enough, we spend enough money, and we have interests in both areas, so yes, I think we can do both. We do not have to have tens of thousands of troops and dozens of ships in the region. What we need is a sustainable military presence backed by strong diplomatic efforts. This combination is very important, as it encourages American investment in the region.

The presence of small groups of troops or some ships at critical locations goes a long way and encourages our partners. We do not have to have the same number of troops as we had for a long period of time, which is unnecessary. We can have a smaller but more sustainable level of commitment that protects our interests and demonstrates our support for our partners.

Are you hopeful that the Saudis and the Americans will sign a defence pact?

I hope so. I hope that we move forward. Again, it is in our best interest to do this. I hope it becomes a platform to normalise relations between Israel and other countries in the region; this is important. Before 7 October, there was a lot of effort. Having just returned from the region and visited several countries, I can tell you that they see the advantage of good relations between Israel, the United States, and the countries of the region. The United States is a key part of that. It is in the mutual interests of those in the region.

Some Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, say they first need to see a ceasefire in Gaza and a pathway towards a Palestinian state. They expect some positive moves on this before addressing normalisation.

That is understandable. However, it is also important that what comes from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries is not just rhetoric. They have to be willing to put resources into this. Gaza needs a massive reconstruction effort. Countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, will have to step forward on that.

There may be a need for international forces in Gaza at some point. It would not be in Israel's interest to occupy it, nor in the Palestinians', so there may be the need for an international force drawn not just from Western countries but from countries of the region. Rhetoric must be matched by action.

Axel Rangel Garcia

Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, the prime minister of Iraq, was in Washington recently. There was talk of a new kind of US-Iraq relationship. What are your views on this?

Geostrategically, Iraq is an extraordinarily important country in the region. It sits on the Sunni-Shiite divide, at the head of the Gulf, bumping up against Asia, close to Turkey. It has an incredibly important location. It is in our interests to have a good, enduring relationship with Iraq, its government, and its military. Again, there does not have to be a huge number of troops on the ground, but small teams in the right places can really help preserve the professionalism of the Iraqi forces and be a bulwark against an expansionist Iran.

Iraqis are more nationalistic than most people appreciate. They look at Iraq first. They do not want to be a country that is always fought over. They have a very educated, smart population with lots of potential. A strong relationship with Iraq is very much in our interest. I hope we can preserve something despite the incredible pressure put on Mr Al Sudani.

Iran seems to be pressing the Iraqi government to push America out.

I agree, and it would be a mistake for us to think that we could pull away. We have done so before, but it did not turn out well. We have to sustain our efforts and think of the longer term rather than the shorter term. Iraq is an important country in the region and will be so in the future. It is important for us to have a good relationship with it.

Next door, in Syria, you are a big supporter of the Syrian Democratic Forces. I know SDF General Mazloum Abdi well. In 2019, you were against Donald Trump's decision to pull out. We are in an election year. Do you think American troops will stay in Syria forever? How might an American withdrawal affect the fight against IS?

Maybe not forever, but we do have to make a long-term commitment. We do not have a huge number of troops there, just a few hundred. That is sustainable. We are not absorbing casualties; we can defend ourselves, and we are performing an important mission: supporting the SDF and keeping the pressure on IS. With the rise of other branches of IS, it is in our interest to maintain this.

One of the most important things we could do—and something that might let us actually bring our troops back—is help broker a political solution that gives Syrian Kurds and others who are associated with us some kind of political outcome. This has been lacking. In 2019, after our military success, there was a strong hope that we would move that into the political realm. That has not been done yet.

We have to do that to withdraw our forces and provide some kind of confidence and reliability for the Kurds that they will be an integral part of the Syrian landscape and not be persecuted. That has long been a problem. Military solutions are good, but they can be tiresome and expensive. Ultimately, we need a political solution. That is actually more difficult.

Read more: The dangers of a US withdrawal from Syria

The Houthis have completely changed how the commercial world moves goods, trying to create a 'new normal'.

General Joseph Votel, former CENTCOM commander

How do you view the US-China military rivalry? Do you think there is a new world order?

As an American, I think the world order put in place after World War II by the United States and a number of other countries has generally been positive. It has led to growth, prosperity, and the spread of democracy. It has not been perfect, no system is. But I do not think it is a system that excludes China or others. For many years, the United States has embraced its relationship with China and is largely responsible for bringing China into the global economy. We saw that as part of our interest.

Now, we see China trying to rewrite the rules. That is concerning because we do not know where it will go. It is important for the United States to double down on its advantages, strengths, and partnerships around the world. That is why it is important that we do not leave the Middle East. The relationships there are too important to us. If we do, we will be replaced by China. In many ways, China is already competing with us in the Middle East. I was just in the region.

They acknowledge the significant trade partner that China is, but they also acknowledge the overriding importance of a relationship with us. We have to pay attention to not only our military and technological edge, but also our diplomatic and political edge, and have good partners.

In the Indo-Pacific, we have pursued good relationships with people in countries like Japan and Korea, long-time partners, but also with Vietnam, a former adversary that is now a good friend and partner, certainly with Australia and the Philippines. We need to translate that now to the Middle East, to Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf, and make sure those are positive and good relationships.

It does not mean that we will agree on everything, that is not what friends do, but have mechanisms by which we can work through difficulties. We have to do that and demonstrate our commitment to the region. I believe it is in our interest, the region's interest, and the global community's interest.

Finally, the US-led post-war world order has lasted for more than seven decades but is now being tested and challenged by Russia and China. You mentioned how the Americans were building or reviving alliances around China but not in the Middle East. Do you think there is an awareness of this disparity in Washington?

I do. I also talked to some of our diplomats in the region. They are very aware of the situation and know what the United States needs to do. I am very confident in our diplomatic corps there. Our ambassadors are extraordinary: great servants to our country, dedicated to the region and the places where they serve and trying their best to balance that.

The challenge for the United States is making choices here. As a result of our actions over the last 20-25 years and the war on terror, China has risen and is now challenging us in areas where we have had dominance. How it is doing so is having very significant impacts, whether it is debt traps, political isolation, suppression, or even aggression, as we see against Taiwan.

You can say the same thing about Russia. Look what it did in Ukraine. The whole argument Mr Putin made about why he needed to go in there is ridiculous. He is actually trying to move back to something more akin to the Soviet Union, which everyone would agree was a failure. This is the choice we have. For the United States to confront a variety of threats, whether it is China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, or violent extremist organisations, we have to make difficult choices.

Yet, we have challenges at home, too, including a serious problem with migration on our own southwest border. So, there are difficult choices. I do not minimise any of it, but our leaders need to work out a balance. That is what we, as American citizens, expect them to do.

Are you confident America can do it?

I am always confident in America's ability to do the right thing. I hope people in the region respect that. I know that sometimes dealing with Americans can be frustrating, but in the end, we always do the right thing.

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