"If Russia does invade Ukraine they would not hesitate to be able to act as a spoiler in Syria as well," says Lieutenant General Erik Kurilla, who's replacing Marine General Frank McKenzie as top US commander in the Middle East.

US general says Russia's war with Ukraine could spill over into Syria, where Moscow already has a military base and troops.
US general says Russia's war with Ukraine could spill over into Syria, where Moscow already has a military base and troops. (Reuters Archive)

The army general tapped to take over as top US commander in the Middle East has warned senators that if Russia invades Ukraine, as many fear, it could create broader instability in the Middle East, including Syria. 

But he was clear that Iran remains the key threat to US and allies in the region.

Asked about the potential for repercussions in the Middle East of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lieutenant General Erik Kurilla said on Tuesday he believes that it could spill over into Syria, where Russia already has a military base and troops.

"If Russia does invade Ukraine they would not hesitate to be able to act as a spoiler in Syria as well," said Kurilla, who previously served as a deputy at Central Command.

He added that Washington doesn't believe Russia wants to go to war with the United States.

Kurilla also pitched for cooperation with the Taliban against the Daesh terror group.

READ MORE: US warns Russia may invade 'any day' as Kiev rejects apocalyptic scenarios

US general Erik Kurilla says 18 of the 21 countries in the Central Command region have signed strategic agreements with Beijing, which has increased its development in the Middle East.
US general Erik Kurilla says 18 of the 21 countries in the Central Command region have signed strategic agreements with Beijing, which has increased its development in the Middle East. (AP)

China flexing muscle

Kurilla also told on Tuesday the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is expanding its power and spending in the Central Command region, including in countries needed by the US to gather intelligence on extremist activities in Afghanistan.

"The United States faces a new era of strategic competition with China and Russia that is not confined to one geographical region and extends into the (Central Command) area of responsibility," said Kurilla during the committee's hearing on his nomination. 

"As the United States rightfully prioritises competition with China, we must remain engaged in the Middle East and Central and South Asia."

On China, Kurilla said 18 of the 21 countries in the Central Command region have signed strategic agreements with Beijing, which has increased its development in the Middle East. 

The US, he said, has to be able to counter China there.

Kurilla, a combat-hardened officer with extensive experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, got a friendly reception from the panel and was told he would probably be confirmed.

If he gets the job, Kurilla would take over as the Pentagon continues to try to shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific and counter a rising China, and to bolster defences against Russia in Europe. 

Kurilla would replace Marine General Frank McKenzie, who is retiring after three years leading the command. 

READ MORE: How China is approaching the Ukraine crisis

Cooperation with Taliban

The US, which left Afghanistan at the end of August, has been struggling to negotiate with a number of countries in the region to allow overflights, basing, or other intelligence gathering from within their borders. 

Asked about working with the Taliban, Kurilla said the US should take a pragmatic approach. 

He said the Taliban also views the Daesh terror group as an enemy, so that may be a potential area of agreement. 

He also said the US must find ways to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, and that may involve Taliban help with food deliveries.

READ MORE: UN urges nations to release frozen assets, increase aid to Afghanistan

Source: AP