The U.S. military is sending an unspecified number of troops to Saudi Arabia following an attack on Saudi oil refineries that the U.S. government has blamed on Iran, top defense officials announced on Friday.
Saudi Arabia had requested international help to help protect the country's infrastructure following the Sept. 14 attacks by Iranian drones and cruise missiles, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Pentagon news briefing. The United Arab Emirates has also required help.
"In response to the kingdom's request, the president has approved the deployment of U.S. forces, which will be defensive in nature, and primarily focused on air and missile defense," Esper said. "We will also work to accelerate the delivery of military equipment to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enhance their ability to defend themselves."
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not say how many service members are headed to Saudi Arabia, but he characterized the deployment as involving a "moderate" number of troops. He told a reporter it would be "fair to say" it wouldn't be in the thousands.
"Secretary Pompeo just came back this morning and the Saudis asked for enhanced defensive capabilities, so what we'll do now is take the president's decision; I'll talk with CENTCOM over the weekend ; we'll talk to our Saudi partners; and we'll work the details of the deployment. We'll be able to share that with you next week," Dunford said at Friday's briefing.
The United States is looking for other countries to also contribute Saudi Arabia's defense, Dunford said. Esper said the deployment of U.S. forces is meant to support the United States' partners in the Middle East, to ensure the free flow of commerce, and to show the United States' commitment to international rules.
The U.S. forces being sent to Saudi Arabia should be sufficient for now, "But that doesn't mean there could be additional deployments as needed, based on the changing situation," Esper said.
When asked if President Trump's decision to send U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia indicated he had decided not to launch retaliatory military strikes against Iran for the oil refinery attacks, Esper did not answer directly.
"This is the first step that we're taking with regard to responding to these attacks," Esper said. "The United States has a robust presence in the [Persian] Gulf already. We bolstered it further in May. So, we feel quite confident in terms of our own defensive posture and our ability to do anything else as necessary."
"But that's not where we are right now," he continued. "Right now, we're focused on helping the Saudis improve their defenses of that infrastructure."
In 1990, then President George H.W. Bush deployed troops to Saudi Arabia in response to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The move ultimately enraged Osama bin Laden and became one of the justifications for Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.