US seeks Arabs to re­place its troops

The Australian - - WORLD - MICHAEL R. GOR­DON WASH­ING­TON

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to as­sem­ble an Arab force to re­place the US mil­i­tary con­tin­gent in Syria and help sta­bilise the north­east­ern part of the coun­try af­ter the de­feat of Is­lamic State.

John Bolton, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s new Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser, re­cently called Ab­bas Kamel, Egypt’s act­ing in­tel­li­gence chief, to see if Cairo would con­trib­ute to the ef­fort, of­fi­cials said.

The ini­tia­tive comes as the ad­min­is­tra­tion has asked Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates to con­trib­ute bil­lions of dol­lars to help re­store north­ern Syria. It wants Arab na­tions to send troops as well.

De­tails about the ini­tia­tive have emerged in the days since the US-led strikes on sites as­so­ci­ated with the Syr­ian regime’s chem­i­cal­weapons ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Mr Trump, who has ex­pressed grow­ing im­pa­tience with the cost and du­ra­tion of the ef­fort to sta­bilise Syria, al­luded to the push on Satur­day, when he an­nounced the mis­sile strikes.

“We have asked our part­ners to take greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for se­cur­ing their home re­gion, in­clud­ing con­tribut­ing larger amounts of money,” he said.

In early April, Mr Trump spoke about the need to speed the with­drawal of the 2000 troops the US has in Syria, a po­si­tion at odds with many top ad­vis­ers who worry that leav­ing the coun­try too soon would cede ground to Iran, Rus­sia, their prox­ies or other ex­trem­ist groups. The new ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­tia­tive is aimed at avoid­ing a se­cu­rity vacuum in Syria that would al­low ISIS to re­turn or ced­ing hard-won gains to Ira­nian-backed forces in the coun­try.

A spokesman for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­clined to com­ment about Mr Bolton’s call to Mr. Kamel, who is widely re­garded as one of the most pow­er­ful fig­ures in the Egyp­tian regime. Other of­fi­cials, how­ever, ac­knowl­edged the con­ver­sa­tion and noted the ad­min­is­tra­tion had reached out to the Gulf states as well.

“Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and the UAE have all been ap­proached with re­spect to fi­nan­cial sup­port and more broadly to con­trib­ute,” an ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

Some mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said that com­plet­ing the de­feat of ISIS in Syria re­mained a chal­lenge. More­over, any move to as­sem­ble an Arab troop con­tin­gent that would be de­ployed af­ter US troops left would face ob­sta­cles.

Charles Lis­ter, a se­nior fel­low at the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, said that as­sem­bling a new force would be a chal­lenge be­cause Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE are in­volved mil­i­tar­ily in Ye­men, and Egypt would be re­luc­tant to de­fend ter­ri­tory that wasn’t con­trolled by the regime of dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad.

Nor, he said, would Arab states be ea­ger to send forces to Syria if the US mil­i­tary didn’t agree to keep some troops there.

“There is just no prece­dent or es­tab­lished ba­sis for this shap­ing into a suc­cess­ful strat­egy,” he said.

And many ques­tions re­main about whether the US mil­i­tary would main­tain some in­volve­ment in ex­e­cut­ing such a plan. US troops in Syria, and the Kur­dish and Arab fighters they work with, have been pro­tected by Amer­i­can air power. It re­mains un­clear what role, if any, US war­planes might play and who would call in airstrikes if they were needed by a fu­ture Arab force.

“It has to be strong enough to face down As­sad or Iran if ei­ther seeks to re­claim ter­ri­tory, per­haps with Rus­sia’s help,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, re­fer­ring to the new force.

In early Jan­uary, US mil­i­tary of­fi­cials were hop­ing to wind up their cam­paign in Syria in a mat­ter of months and keep troops to sup­port a con­tin­u­ing State Depart­ment ef­fort to sta­bilise Raqqa and other ar­eas for­merly un­der ISIS con­trol. But that plan was up­ended by de­vel­op­ments in the field.

Many US-backed Syr­ian Kur­dish fighters have aban­doned the fight against ISIS and rushed to­wards the city of Afrin and other ar­eas in north­ern Syria that have been at­tacked by Turk­ish troops.

‘There is just no prece­dent … for this shap­ing into a suc­cess­ful strat­egy’ CHARLES LIS­TER MID­DLE EAST IN­STI­TUTE

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