Defense Secretary Austin says US is ‘concerned about potential escalation’ in Middle East

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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Sunday the US is “concerned about potential escalation” in the Middle East a day after announcing the deployment of additional military assets to the region.

“We’re concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we’re seeing is a – is a prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region, and because of that, we’re going to do what’s necessary to make sure that our troops are in the right – in a good position, and they’re protected, and that we have the ability to respond,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

On Saturday night, Austin announced the deployment of additional missile defense systems in the Middle East and additional US troops on prepare-to-deploy orders. Those deployments add to a series of other US military movements since Hamas attacked Israel two weeks ago, including a US Marine rapid response force consisting of 2,000 Marines and sailors, and two carrier groups ordered to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran and its allies Syria and Hezbollah from opening new fronts against Israel.

US officials have previously stressed there are no plans to put American boots on the ground to fight in the war between Israel and Hamas, which Israeli officials have warned could be prolonged and difficult.

Austin said the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery as well as additional Patriot battalions to locations throughout the region was to protect US troops in the area. Both the THAAD and Patriots systems are air defense systems designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles.

Last week, a US Navy warship operating in the Middle East intercepted multiple projectiles near the coast of Yemen fired by Iranian-backed Houthi militants, who are engaged in an ongoing conflict in the country. That incident was one of a series in recent days with US bases being targeted by drones in Syria and Iraq and as American embassies face protests throughout the region.

“Following detailed discussions with President Biden on recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East Region, today I directed a series of additional steps to further strengthen the Department of Defense posture in the region. These steps will bolster regional deterrence efforts, increase force protection for U.S. forces in the region, and assist in the defense of Israel,” Austin said in a statement.

The Defense secretary, ahead of Israel’s imminent ground incursion into Gaza, told ABC he has encouraged Israeli officials, and specifically Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, “to conduct their operations in accordance with the law of war.”

In response to a question on whether Israel was doing enough to protect or ensure innocent civilians are not being killed, Austin said, “We encourage them at every opportunity, Jon, to make sure that, you know, we’re accounting for those civilians that are in the battle space, that we’re providing corridors for them to leave the battle space if necessary, and that they’re allowing humanitarian assistance to get into that space as well.”

Austin did say he thinks a two-state solution is still “very, very supportable.”

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