Sources inside the White House have said National Security Adviser to President Trump, John Bolton and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo are among those pushing for an Arab military coalition that could replace US troops in Syria and serve as a stabilizing force in the country once ISIS is defeated.
President Trump, was looking at pulling the US military from Syria prior to the Chemical Attack by the Assad regime and is now looking at ways to pull US troops our of the region. A source inside the White House said the Trump administration is considering an offer that would put a compelling reward on the table to try and convince countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
With Trumps recent comments, declaring he wants the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and handing over to an Arab coalition force aligned with US interests is something that was considered by the previous Obama administration. The US will be looking for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Barain to take over the fight against ISIS and counter Iran in Syria.
A White House source has said this week, discussions between the Arab nations and the Trump administration have shifted towards a transition plan which the administration continue to push. The same source also confirmed that Bolton recently called Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to gauge whether his country would be willing to contribute to the effort, a detail previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia is engaged in talks with the US and would consider sending forces to Syria along with other Arab countries as part of this contingent. Jubeir also noted that the idea is not necessarily new, as Saudi Arabia made a similar proposal to the Obama administration, but that the US did not take them up on the offer.
Coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon said Tuesday that individual nations are responsible for announcing specific force contributions on the ground in Syria. “As far as the coalition and individual nations that are contributing forces to Syria as a request by those nations we have not announced that and we will respect their request on that, so whether that’s providing air support or ground support or trainers, we’ll leave that to individual nations to personally make that announcement,” he said.
Mike Pompeo has expressed interest in the concept of an Arab coalition since he first joined the Trump administration as CIA director and his informal advisers met with Egyptian officials even before his nomination for Secretary of State was announced.
But while nations like Saudi Arabia have indicated that progress could be possible, the US has yet to determine what is it willing to offer in exchange for participation. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, one idea that is currently being discussed within the National Security Council, and is in play at this time, is to offer the Saudis a ‘major non-NATO’ status if they were to come through with peacekeeping forces and funding. Designating Saudi Arabia a major non-NATO ally would formally acknowledge their standing as a strategic military partner with the US on the level of key allies like Israel, South Korea and Jordan.
“Major non-NATO status is a real feather in the cap of many nations … in a sense it would essentially cement the US as the guarantor of Saudi security for foreseeable future,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security. “It would put down on paper what has been the gentleman’s agreement,” he said, adding that it is a codified status.
The major issue of handing over of military operations to Arab nations is would they actually be up for the task from a military standpoint? Despite purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of US defence equipment and weapons, most Arab military forces remain fundamentally limited in their capability. Many Arab nations lack a military capable of power projection or the ability to travel great distances, sustain themselves and sustain operations, even the most advanced military forces in the region still rely on US for intelligence-gathering and targeting information from classified US satellites.
Additionally, these countries lack sophisticated special operations assets, enough refuelling aircraft to sustain constant flight missions and the resources to establish security for bases inside Syria for multiple Arab nations. The conflict in Yemen also reveals many of the issues that arise when US-Arab partners are left to organise their own operations, considering that the Saudis and Emirates have often clashed over differing strategic approaches.
While offering major non-NATO status may help sweeten the deal for the Saudis, the US must also consider if it is willing to pay that big of a price for what is widely considered a risky investment. There is a genuine concern that some Arab allies would use operations in Syria as a pretext to engage in a larger proxy war against Iran and provide weapons to the rebels that might force the US hands to become involved in the civil war in ways that are not in their best interest.
Then there is Egypt: they might have the manpower to serve as the backbone of a force in Syria but they lack the willpower to do so and have also had trouble dealing with several ongoing crises in their own backyard, according to Heras.