Home » News & Analysis » 4,500 Marines, F-35 Squadron on Standby in Middle East as U.S. Mulls Syria Exit

4,500 Marines, F-35 Squadron on Standby in Middle East as U.S. Mulls Syria Exit

Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) transits the Gulf of Aden during a vertical replenishment while on a regularly scheduled deployment of Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). US Navy Photo

Two Navy amphibious ready groups and about 4,500 shipboard Marines are on standby in the Middle East to support an American exit from Syria if needed, a defense official confirmed to USNI News late Monday.

The three-ship Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit transited the Suez Canal into the Red Sea over the weekend, while the three ships of the Essex ARG and the 13th MEU are on station just outside the entrance to the Persian Gulf in the North Arabian Sea. The 13th MEU is deployed with a squadron of Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters aboard USS Essex (LHD-2), which have been used to strike targets in Afghanistan.

While there are no immediate plans to deploy the Marines to assist with the departure of about 2,000 American troops in bases across Syria, the forces are being held nearby as a contingency as needed, the official said.

President Trump announced the immediate troop withdrawal from Syria in mid-December after declaring ISIS defeated. Since then, the administration has been working through the timing of removing the troops from Northeastern Syria. At the same time, the U.S. is working to ensure the safety of Kurdish fighters, who were key U.S. allies in the anti-ISIS fight but are viewed by nearby Turkey as terrorists.

Congressional Research Service Image

Last week The Wall Street Journal reported that, rather than withdraw troops from the bases in Syria immediately, the Pentagon was staging forces at key installations in Kuwait and Iraq that would be needed to pull out forces from the U.S. bases inside the country. On Friday, The New York Times reported the U.S. had begun to pull out equipment but not personnel from the American bases in Syria.

“The U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria in a strong, deliberate and coordinated manner, and seeks to ensure that the forces that have fought alongside coalition partners in the campaign against ISIS are not endangered,” a defense official told the paper. “As the president said, there is no specific timeline for that withdrawal.”

For the moment, that means a change in plans for the California-based Essex ARG and the 13th MEU. Essex has been on deployment since leaving San Diego in July. The big-deck amphibious warship and its two escorts have been loitering in the North Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean since leaving the Persian Gulf in mid-December, rather than start the journey home across the Western Pacific. The Kearsarge ARG and 22nd MEU are fresh into their deployment leaving the East Coast on Dec. 19.

An F-35B Lightning II, attached to the “ Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, launches from the flight deck of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). Navy photo.

The Essex and Kearsarge ARGs join USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and the embarked Carrier Air Wing 9 in U.S. Central Command. The Stennis Carrier Strike Group has been striking targets in both Syria and Afghanistan since it entered the Persian Gulf in late December. Collectively, the almost dozen ships are the largest collection of U.S. naval power in the Middle East in recent memory

In 2018, the Navy changed its pattern of near-constant aircraft carrier presence in the Middle East in favor of more operations in the Atlantic to counter the emerging Russian submarine threat.

  • PoliticalPawn

    The deadliest group of vessels to ever sail the seven seas.

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      I always thought, if I was President, rather than the oft-quoted parable/question of “Where are The Carriers??” , my question would much more often be, “Where are The Amphibs??” … fighters are nice… MEUs are both terrifying and much more ‘permanent’. The bomb falls, it blows up, the fighter leaves the area. The 2000 Marines encamped on your shores, … they ain’t going anywhere until we say so.

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        Marines ashore are fundamentally different than CV off coast. Presence is not boots on ground. This is not to disagree with you, just to point out different levels of diplomatic statement.

        • Ser Arthur Dayne

          Yes thank you, let me salute you for explaining the difference between boots and bombs. I will endeavor to use this new knowledge in the betterment of mankind.

        • Rocco

          They both have their merits, & purposes!!

      • Brent Leatherman

        Having done three MEU-SOC (as they were called then) deployments, I agree with you. We were doing a tour off of Mogadishu and the Commodore had to fly to Nigeria (for fueling rights) to assure the President that we weren’t looking to invade his country. I think that’s the “Big Stick” ol’ TR talked about.

        • Ser Arthur Dayne

          Thank you sir not only for your service defending us Joe Sixpacks but also your comment. When I see MEU-SOC, the only thing I think of the MEU-SOC 1911 I have a burning desire to own…. let me know if you find any surplus.

    • Rocco


  • b2

    “… a defense official confirmed to USNI News late Monday” ??

    A Marine PAO most likely.

    Even with an airwing minus like we have nowadays (65 vs 95) on Stennis, the US Navy CVN have more lethal combat airpower x30 than a few F-35Bs.. Don’t forget about the Tomahawks the surface ships and SSN bring..

    That being said, head back to another theater with that ARG (Navy)/ MEU (USMC..) and wait for a NEO or another Benghazi in W. Africa. IE- Something appropriate. I can’t stand meaningless bravado…..

    • Duane

      F-35B is undefeated in air to air exercises to date. Far more capable than any Super Hornets ever were or could be.

      • Bubblehead

        Because the USN shares with you the secret details of the exercises….

        • Centaurus

          Only the Shadow knows…..

  • Brent Leatherman

    America’s 911 force, at your service.

  • EdMan

    The CSG-ESG tandem – unbeatable!

  • AndyS

    “The 13th MEU is deployed with a squadron of Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters aboard USS Essex (LHD-2), which have been used to blow up a weapon cache in Afghanistan.”