Votel to Asharq Al-Awsat: US Deterred Iran in Iraq, Syria… It Could in Yemen

A handout photo made available by German Armed Forces shows a C-130 of the bi-national German-French squadron “Rhein/Rhin” drops relief supplies over the Gaza Strip, 16 March 2024. (EPA/Sherifa Kaestner / German Armed Forces / Handout)
A handout photo made available by German Armed Forces shows a C-130 of the bi-national German-French squadron “Rhein/Rhin” drops relief supplies over the Gaza Strip, 16 March 2024. (EPA/Sherifa Kaestner / German Armed Forces / Handout)

Votel to Asharq Al-Awsat: US Deterred Iran in Iraq, Syria… It Could in Yemen

A handout photo made available by German Armed Forces shows a C-130 of the bi-national German-French squadron “Rhein/Rhin” drops relief supplies over the Gaza Strip, 16 March 2024. (EPA/Sherifa Kaestner / German Armed Forces / Handout)
A handout photo made available by German Armed Forces shows a C-130 of the bi-national German-French squadron “Rhein/Rhin” drops relief supplies over the Gaza Strip, 16 March 2024. (EPA/Sherifa Kaestner / German Armed Forces / Handout)

The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza constitutes a major point of contention between the United States and Israel, General Joseph Votel, the former commander of the US Central Command, said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, adding that Israel has eliminated 20 to 30 percent of Hamas so far.  

The four-star General said that the Houthis attacks against navigation in the Red Sea have become a “major problem.” He suggested an increase in the assets of the U.S. military in the region to make it “extremely painful” for the Houthis and Iran, to stop their attacks against the ships and international navigation in the Red Sea, noting that the United States recently “deterred” Iran from continuing its militia attacks in both Iraq and Syria against American forces and interests in the region.  

Votel said he believes that “there is no interest’ for Israel or Hezbollah in a full confrontation. He also expressed "concern" about the ongoing discussions regarding the withdrawal of American forces stationed in Iraq, which could also affect the presence of the US forces in Syria.  

Here is the full interview:  

* Let me start from the situation in Gaza, because the President tried to arrange for some ceasefire during Ramadan. Apparently, it's not the case. And probably that would have some implications from the military perspective, including on the US forces in the region. Your insights, please.  

I think everybody can agree that Israel needs to do what it needs to do to protect itself from the threat of Hamas, but I think a large part of the disagreement from our government standpoint is that the military operation does not seem to take into consideration the extreme humanitarian situation that is playing out on the ground.  

Nearly 80-90 percent of the population of Gaza has been displaced by this conflict, and a military operation while necessary, must also take place in the context of planning and coordinating and synchronizing with the humanitarian community to ensure that we don't we don't exacerbate the humanitarian situation and make things worse than they already are. So, I think this has been the major sticking point between the United States government and the government of Israel toward coming operations particularly in the southern part of Gaza in and around Rafah.  

Humanitarian challenge  

*If you were in the same position you were previously, and had the President needed your advice on the situation, what would say?

I think that some of the actions that we’ve seen by the administration reflects some of the advice that would be provided. For example, one of the things that I would try to emphasize is that we should do those things that are within our capacity to do, like delivering aid by air or by the sea. That's an appropriate thing for us to do. It helps demonstrate that we are attuned to the humanitarian situation, and we are trying to take measures to remedy it, and hopefully these means will provide a way to perhaps address the broader challenge of humanitarian issues in Gaza.

I think secondly, it's important to make sure that we are maintaining very good communications, not just with the Israelis, but with our other partners on the region, and across the region, to make sure that we are sharing best insights and then we are preserving relationships going forward. I am concerned that some of the political discourse that is taking place could be affecting some of the effectiveness of our military to military or intelligence community to intelligence community relationships. So, those are very important.  

Third, I would be encouraging the administration to be stronger against those activities that are outside of the Gaza area, for example, what's happening in the Red Sea. This has become a big problem.   

Not enough  

*While the US is trying to make some arrangements for humanitarian aid either by air or by sea, humanitarian organizations and the UN are saying that this is not enough to prevent famine. After five months of war, what has Benjamin Netanyahu have achieved other than this humanitarian crisis and the destruction of the strip?

I agree that airdrops of humanitarian food supplies are not going to be enough to address the problem. They are a start, and they will address some small portion of the problem. But again, the most effective way of addressing humanitarian situation will be to open up ground lines of communication, ground routes with non-government organizations, UN organizations, other humanitarian aid organizations who can be on the ground to distribute and make sure these materials get to the people that are needed, and can assess the progress we're making. So yes, I do agree what we are doing while it's necessary, it's insufficient to the to the need.

The over the shore option that we're not looking at for bringing up aid through a temporary port has the potential to have more impact. But again, it is just one other way of getting things in there. And there needs to be much more effort put into getting the right organizations on the ground to make sure the aid gets to where it is most needed. I agree with you that it is a humanitarian disaster.  

As to the leader of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, my own personal opinion here is that what would they have accomplished so far, is they have removed a significant, or at least a good portion of Hamas' ability to effectively attack into Israel. They have neutralized a percentage of the of the Hamas fighters. I've seen estimates 20 to 30 percent.  

*Would you advise the President to put more pressure on Israel in order to try to alleviate this humanitarian disaster? This would have some military implications because the US is the main provider of arms to Israel.

I'm not sure I'm there on making a decision to stop providing all support to Israel. I'm not sure I'm there on that, or I would recommend that. I think the United States is putting a lot of pressure on the Israeli government, on the Prime Minister in particular. I mean War Cabinet Minister Benny Ganz was in Washington last week, and met with a number of our national leaders here. The President by the day has become more strident and more critical of the approach that the Netanyahu government is taking, to how they're conducting operations in Gaza.

I think it's important to keep that pressure up to try to change that. But I also think the United States has to continue to work, to connect all the different parties here, whether it is Hamas and in Israel to try to come to some kind of temporary or permanent ceasefire or some resolution of the hostage situation, or continuing to open up easier ways to get humanitarian aid into the people of Gaza. I think these are three areas where the United States should be continuing to push, and continuing to put pressure not just on Israel, but on Hamas and the backers of Hamas as well. I think it's important to make sure that we are putting equal pressure in all directions here.

Resistance Axis

*On the regional, or probably international dimensions of this conflict in the Red Sea. It seems to me, and probably this is silly to say, that the Houthis are happy that they are fighting America.

I think this is true. So far, the Houthis have derived more benefit by perpetrating these attacks than they have felt the effects of the pressure that we’ve put on them. While there have been a number of strikes that we have conducted and the British have conducted against coastal defense sites, against supply depots, against command and control nodes, they have not been to a level that has convinced the Houthis that they have more to lose than they have to gain by continuing to push these attacks and conduct these attacks. We've just seen waves and waves of them just over this last weekend, a lot of them launched at US military vessels that are operating in the Red Sea.  

So until we are able to do something that convinces the Houthis that the cost of continuing to have to take these attacks or launch these attacks, the cost associated that outweighs the benefit, they will likely continue to do this. And they are deriving a benefit from this. They are there in the news. They have had a significant impact on global shipping through the Red Sea; somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of it has stopped.  

They're being viewed as a group that is standing up against the United States and other Western powers, and they're being seen as a very good and loyal member of Iran's Axis of Resistance. So right now, all of these things are more beneficial to them than the cost associated with the strikes that we have done against them. So we either have to ramp things up and really go after this, and make it very painful for them and Iran who is supporting them, or we have to live with the fact that we're going to deal with these threats for a long time, for until the situation in Gaza is resolved.

*What is your main concern on the situation in the Red Sea for the time being?

 My main answer is that we have to go after the supplier routes and facilitation routes that are continuing to provide the Houthis with all the materials that they have. They’ve been getting these materials for years. So, they have a large supply on the ground. So, while we destroy some things, it's relatively easily replaced. If we want to stop this, we have to cut them off. And we have to go after those facilitators largely at the best of Iran, who are bringing materials into that country. We need to prevent them from doing that. And then in conjunction with our ongoing strike campaign, reduce their ability to launch these attacks. I think that's what we have to do. So that will require more resources. It'll require more focus, it'll likely require more combat to do that.  

These are all things that our government would weigh in when making a decision like this. But in order to address this effectively, we will have to commit more resources, and take more effort to shut this down completely, not just protect ourselves. Just shut down the ability of the Houthis to conduct these types of attacks.

Israel and Hezbollah

*And that might risk the US slipping into a war…

Well, it could. It would certainly require us to deploy more resources into the region that would draw get away from other things that are important to us, and likely could get us involved in more of a protracted conflict with the Houthis or, you know, maybe with Iran over something like this or others in the region. There are definitely risks that are associated with this, and as you know, there's risks involved in everything.  

*Another hot point is the border between Israel and Lebanon. And it's just simmering there, and we don't know what's going to happen in the in the near future, if the Gaza war doesn't stop.

My assessment is that both sides in this case the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli government, neither of them want to have a confrontation along the northern border. That's in no one's interests. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah certainly remembers what happened there the last time when there was an Israeli incursion into Lebanon. The amount of destruction that resulted in, and the pressure that was put on him from the rest of the Lebanese government, and the broader population largely because of the policies that he was pursuing. There is no strong desire to do that.  

That said, Hezbollah will continue to hedge their bets, and they will continue to conduct harassing attacks to make it difficult for Israeli citizens to come back into their homes near the border, and that will continue to put more pressure on Netanyahu. They see it in their interest to continue to launch a few strikes here, a few strikes there, that aren’t overly effective, but which are constant reminders that Lebanese Hezbollah can impact things in Israel.  

It's important that we try to get this back to more of a status quo, where there are very few attacks across the border, and people can go back to living their lives in these areas. I don't know that there's going to be a particularly big breakthrough politically here. I think the best case would be going back to the status quo to the situation before October 7.

*Israel wants Hezbollah to be pushed away from the border.

That's unlikely to happen as well.

*On Syria and Iraq, the US Army posture in both countries and the ramifications of what's going on in Gaza, what do you think?

We've absorbed a lot of attacks here from Iranian allied militias in both Iraq and Syria. That seems to have dropped off since we conducted a series of strikes several weeks ago.

I think Iran has seen that they are vulnerable in this area, and they have recognized that they have a lot to lose by continuing to push these attacks and in potentially put more American lives at risk in the in the region. I think we've been successful in beginning to deter that and trying to return it to a more normal situation. I am concerned about the ongoing discussions that are taking place in Iraq, and to some degree with the United States over the disposition of US troops in Iraq.  

It's my personal view that those troops, about 2,500 or so, that are in Iraq for the purpose of helping the Iraqi security forces with the remnants of ISIS are doing good work, doing important work for Iraq, and important work for the United States. I am concerned that these discussions may lead to the departure of US forces, and as a result, less of a focus on ISIS and other terrorist organizations that may arise in the region. I think the conditions are still around that would allow an organization to do what ISIS did and rise and come back.  

I think the role of the United States plan is helping prevent that right now. I'm concerned that if we have to depart, that becomes much, much more difficult to do, and that raises the risk for the region. Departing from Iraq will have an impact on our troops in Syria as well. They derive a lot of their support from our bases in Iraq and if those are gone, then it will be very difficult to sustain, or we will have to find new ways to sustain our troops and in Syria. There could be some effects in that country as well.

Edge of the abyss

*No matter how you look at the map or the picture in the region; Gaza, Yemen, Red Sea, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, you’d see Iran somehow in the picture. And you right on saying that the US strikes a few weeks ago were kind of effective in deterring Iran. Is that the way that Iran should be dealt with in order to try to contain the mayhem in the Middle East?

The best approach to creating a more stable situation in the Middle East, of course, is diplomatic relations, and opening ties and communication between different parts of the region. The United States has had some efforts in the past to try to reach out to the Iranians; we did this through the nuclear discussion talks that took place.  

Again, we had some different policies in our government that contributed to some of the confusion around this as well. But I think what's important for the long term is that the United States has to take a sustainable approach to the region. We have to be willing to commit some amount of military force to the region to look after our security interest. But more importantly, we have to make sure we're putting in the diplomatic informational and economic aspects into the region that better also as the as equally important as the military one is.  

We’ve got to foster conversations, we've got to foster discussions, we've got to change the nature of the discussion, from one of Iran against the United States, to one of how do we bring Iran into the region effectively. They’ve been around a long time. They are historic country in this part of the region. Their role should be one that is more constructive for the region. And that's only going to be done through diplomatic discourse between the various parties there. We've got to continue to emphasize all that. We've got to be willing to stick with it, and start to address some of these long-term underlying issues of the region.

I mean, we're seeing right now the whole Palestinian issue that has erupted now as a result of an underlying issue that we've known about for decades, we've known as a problem. And now it has come to the head, and it's now brought the region back to the brink. So if there's one good thing that comes out of this, perhaps it is that we can, from this move forward on some way to address the status and the situation of the Palestinians in the Middle East for the long term here. The United States obviously has a policy of the two-state solution, but we have to move forward and address some of these deep underlying tensions and issues of the region, and we need to do it before a crisis arises. 

Israel Pounds Central Gaza Camps, Deepens Invasion of Rafah

A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS
A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS

Israel Pounds Central Gaza Camps, Deepens Invasion of Rafah

A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS
A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS

Israeli forces pounded areas in the central Gaza Strip overnight, killing three people and wounding dozens of others, according to medics, while tanks deepened their invasion into Rafah in the south, residents said.
Israeli planes struck a house in Al-Nuseirat camp, killing two people and wounding 12 others, while tanks shelled areas in Al-Maghazi and Al-Bureij camps, wounding many other people, health officials said, according to Reuters. Nuseirat, Maghazi, and Bureij are three of Gaza's eight historic refugee camps.
In Deir al-Balah, a city packed with displaced people in the central Gaza Strip, an Israeli airstrike killed one Palestinian and wounded several others on Thursday, medics said.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday forces were continuing their operations across the enclave targeting militants and military infrastructure in what it described as "precise, intelligence-based" activities.
More than eight months into the war in Gaza, Israel's advance is now focused on the two last areas its forces had yet to storm: Rafah on Gaza's southern edge and the area surrounding Deir al-Balah in the center. The operations have forced more than a million people to flee since May, the vast majority already displaced from other parts of the enclave.
In Rafah, near the border with Egypt, Israeli tanks stationed deep in the western and central areas of the city stepped up bombardment, forcing more families living in the far coastal areas to flee northward. Some residents said the pace of the raid has been accelerated in the past two days.
"The tanks took control of most of the areas in Rafah. People living by the beach have also started to leave toward Khan Younis and central areas in fear because of the continued bombardment," said Abu Wasim, a resident from Rafah's Al-Shaboura neighborhood, who quit his home over a week ago before tanks rolled in reaching the heart of the city.
Rafah housed over half of Gaza's 2.3 million people until May 7 when Israeli forces began the ground offensive into the city. Fewer than 100,000 are now believed to be left behind.
There has been no sign of let-up in the fighting as efforts by international mediators, backed by the United States, have failed to persuade Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire.
The armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad said fighters battled Israeli forces with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs, and have in some areas detonated pre-planted explosive devices against army units.
On Thursday, Israeli authorities freed 33 Palestinians who had been detained during the past months by Israeli forces in different areas of the enclave. The freed detainees were admitted into Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip after they complained of torture and mistreatment by Israeli jailers.