US seeks Arabs to replace its troops
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