U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, address reporters at Nevatim Air Base, Israel, on Oct. 13, 2023.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, address reporters at Nevatim Air Base, Israel, on Oct. 13, 2023. (Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will make a return visit to the Middle East in the coming days — his second in the last two months — to meet with leaders in three countries, including Israel, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

“He will also have an opportunity to meet some of our forces deployed to the region to thank them for their service,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman.

Austin last visited Israel in mid-October just days after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.

The Pentagon did not provide details of the trip but Ryder said Austin will meet with leaders of Israel, Qatar and Bahrain.

Austin’s latest visit comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East. Various militant groups have stepped up attacks in recent weeks against U.S. forces in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. Since mid-October, groups aligned with Iran have launched at least 89 separate attacks on U.S. bases in the two countries. The Pentagon said the attacks have caused dozens of minor injuries, but no one has been seriously hurt and none of the bases have been seriously damaged.

“These are dangerous attacks, but they have largely been unsuccessful,” Ryder said. “We will do what we need to do to protect our forces.”

Austin’s trip also follows an escalation of violence on Monday when Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at a Norwegian-flagged fuel tanker in the Red Sea. The missile hit the ship and caused a fire, but no casualties were reported. The Iranian-aligned militant group claimed responsibility for the attack on Tuesday.

The attack on the tanker occurred near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key chokepoint that connects the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, as well as northern and eastern Africa. The Pentagon said Tuesday that the USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, was about 100 miles away at the time.

“The Mason was prepared to render assistance, but ultimately it was determined that was not required,” Ryder said. “But the Mason did remain in the vicinity of the ship and the area to deter any further aggression.”

The attack on the fuel tanker is the latest show of force by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been engaged in a civil war with the country’s government for almost a decade. The Pentagon said U.S. warships have shot down drones and missiles fired by the rebels in Yemen multiple times in recent weeks. Navy Cmdr. Jeremy Roberston, the commanding officer of the USS Carney, another Arleigh-class destroyer, said Saturday that his ship has shot down almost two dozen enemy drones and missiles so far.

Ryder said the United States is now collaborating with partner countries to create a maritime task force to further add stability in the region.

“This is an international problem that requires an international solution,” he said. “We will have more to provide in the near future … but we continue to patrol international waterways throughout the region.”

The White House floated the idea of a possible task force earlier this month after three vessels in the Red Sea were struck by Houthi missiles. The Pentagon has sent additional military forces to the Middle East since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack to protect American troops in the region, deterring other groups from escalating the conflict and providing support to Israel.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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