The USS Stennis, at left, and the HMS Illustrious, at right, together in the Persian Gulf in April 1998. The two ships may be sailing together again sooner than expected. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
The U.S., France, and United Kingdom look set to increase their naval presence in the Middle East as the chaos in Syria continues.
Late last week, Britain's Telegraph reported that the country's Ministry of Defence was in the process of preparing contingency plans for evacuating British nationals from the Middle East, should the ongoing conflict in Syria further spill across borders into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
The British would likely send the HMS Illustrious, a helicopter carrier, along with the HMS Bulwark, an amphibious ship, as well as an advanced destroyer to provide defenses for the task force. On board will be several hundred Royal Marine commandos as well as a complement of AH-64 attack helicopters (the same ones used in Libya last year).
Expected to join them will be a fleet of French ships, including the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier, carrying a complement of Rafale fighter aircraft.
Those forces are expected stay offshore from Syria, and could escort specially chartered civilian ships meant to pick up foreign nationals fleeing Syria and surrounding countries.
The United Nations says that as many as 30,000 refugees entered Lebanon within just two days last week. Turkey now hosts some 42,000 refugees (Western media report that camps are well stocked, serviced, and safe), Iraq some 8,000, Jordan some 36,000. The total number of Syrians that have already fled the country amounts to some 120,000 people.
But the heavily armed nature of the European task force is raising eyebrows.
There is concern that Syrian or terrorist forces in the area would attack fleeing civilians or attempt to hinder any rescue operations. Still, the sheer power of the Wesrern forces involved - the Charles De Gaulle alone is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an entire squadron of jets more advanced than anything the Syrians have -- is sparking speculation that those forces could become involved in a NATO operation against Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. It certainly lends credence to the idea that Western expectations of the Syrian conflict to degenerate and expand, perhaps into neighboring countries, are increasing.
Sources in the British Ministry of Defense denied any intention of a combat role for British forces. The HMS Illustrious, which is currently sitting on the Thames in central London, will likely only be sent to the region after the end of the Olympics.
But the French and British ships may be arriving in the region at around the same time as two other powerful navies. The Russian military announced in mid-July that it would be sending a flotilla of 11 ships into the Eastern Mediterranean for exercises, including large landing ships that could potentially be sent to the port of Tartus in Syria.
Last Monday, the Pentagon also confirmed that it would be redeploying the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered supercarrier capable of carrying 90 aircraft, to the Middle East on an earlier schedule than planned. The Stennis would be arriving in the region with an advanced missile-launching cruiser, the USS Mobile Bay. The carrier USS Eisenhower is already expected to be in the Middle East by that time (two carriers currently in the region are to be relieved and sent back to the U.S.).
The Stennis was originally expected to be sent to the Pacific by the end of the year, and only recently returned from the Middle East in March; it will now be back in the region by an unspecified date in the late summer.
The Defense Department said that the early deployment had come from a request made by Marine Corps General James N. Mattis, the commander for Central Command (the U.S. military authority area which covers the Middle East), partly out of concern that there would be a short period where only one carrier would be located in the region.
Amid unpredictable situations in both Syria and Iran, that would have left U.S. forces stretched and overly burdened if a firm military response were needed in either circumstance.
A Pentagon spokesman said on July 16 that the deployment shift was not a decision based solely on the challenges posed by Iran.