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Former CENTCOM commander discusses Gaza, wider conflicts

Scripps News spoke with retired Gen. Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie Jr. about ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Yemen and the wider region.
Former CENTCOM commander discusses Gaza, wider conflicts
Posted at 7:58 PM, Feb 09, 2024

President Biden called Israel’s response in Gaza "over the top" Thursday, as the U.S. tries to secure a cease-fire to allow the release of hostages held in Gaza and the flow of humanitarian aid amid Israel’s war against Hamas in response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza — in the Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Biden said.

The White House Friday maintained that his position, which has supported Israel’s defense but encouraged civilian protection, hasn’t changed.

“We don't think his messaging has changed, he doesn't believe his messaging has changed,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

But Friday, Israel’s Prime Minister’s office announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to submit a plan for evacuating civilians and destroying Hamas battalions in Rafah, an area civilians have fled to amidst the conflict and that has served as an entry point for humanitarian aid.

Thursday, the White House said it hadn’t seen any formal plan for the IDF to go into Rafah.

“Any such plan — when you have more than a million folks that have been displaced down there, any such plan would have to factor in — a responsible military plan would factor in making sure that you can protect those civilians. And as I said, given the circumstances and conditions there that we see right now, we think a military operation at this time would be a disaster for those people,” said John Kirby, NSC spokesperson, on Thursday.

It comes as the administration has balanced supporting Israel’s defense and urging civilian protection amid the mounting civilian suffering in Gaza.

“In order to get at Hamas who has sworn destruction of the State of Israel, they've had to actually accept the fact they're going to, innocent civilians are going to die. That's not an easy decision. I don't envy the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, the decisions they're having to make right now as they pursue the campaign,” said retired Gen. Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie Jr.

McKenzie is a former commander of U.S. Central Command, and currently serves as executive director of the University of South Florida’s Global and National Security Institute.

Central Command has carried out strikes against Iran-backed proxy groups since the fall in response to attacks against U.S. forces and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, as part of its work to keep tensions from escalating more broadly in the Middle East.

“I think it's certainly possible that this conflict is going to spread. But I think what's most interesting is what has not happened. After the horrific attack on Israel on 7 October and the Israeli response to go into Gaza, what has not happened is Lebanese Hezbollah in Lebanon has not entered the fight. Same time, Iran has not entered the fight,” McKenzie said.

SEE MORE: US says retaliatory strike in Baghdad killed Iranian-backed officer

Why is that?

“I think probably because Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran aren't particularly sympathetic to Hamas. They certainly share the same goal with Hamas of destroying the State of Israel. But they're not particularly supportive of them. They were cut out of the operational planning for the for seventh of October attack. And I feel both Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran understand the steep price they would both pay if they chose to, at this time, to start a war with Israel,” he said.

But the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have seemed undeterred by U.S. and coalition strikes. Central Command says forces carried out seven strikes Thursday against unmanned surface vessels and anti-ship cruise missiles in Yemen, marking the latest round of self-defense strikes in a series this week amid continued Houthi aggression against vessels and commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

McKenzie said he believes eventually the weapons will be removed from Houthis by destroying enough of their weapons and facilities — and by cutting off weapons supplies from Iran.

“I believe that eventually we'll either remove those weapons from the Houthis by destruction, destroying their weapons, destroying their radar sites, destroying their command and control facilities and their little factories, or we will destroy enough of them so that they stop because they know what's inevitably going to happen. The other thing that has to happen — this goes back to the Iranians again, of course, is — the Iranians supply the Houthis, typically by dhow, by ships that sail down there. As you know, the two SEALs who tragically lost their lives a few weeks ago were engaged in an interdiction effort against these shipments. We've got to stop that as well. We have a path to doing this. It's going to require that we stay with it for a period of time,” McKenzie said

Meanwhile, Central Command says a commander in Kataib Hezbollah who was responsible for planning the attacks that killed three U.S. service members was himself killed in a U.S. strike in Iraq. This marks another step in the U.S. retaliatory response officials described, aimed in part to send a message against harm to U.S. troops. The Pentagon said a strike on Feb. 2 against IRGC and affiliated groups' facilities killed or injured 40 militants associated with Iranian proxy groups.

“I think we would, I think we need to continue the strikes. And then we need to see what happens. And I think we should not explicitly take Iran off the table for future strikes. I'm not saying we should do it. I recognize it's a big step. But I don't think we should allow them to believe that the Iranian targets inside Iran — and by Iranian targets, I'm talking probably IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Quds Force, the elite sub-element of that — those are the types of targets I believe we'd be looking at. We should not exclude them as a matter of policy, we should include them. So the Iranians have to worry that we might actually do that,” McKenzie said.

SEE MORE: Israel orders population of Gaza's crowded Rafah evacuated

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