The “Arabization” plan seeks to replace U.S. occupiers with Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian troops, as well as possible mercenaries assembled by the founder of Blackwater USA. Analysts say the plan has little chance of succeeding.
WASHINGTON — While the United States, in coordination with junior partners Britain and France, took the lead in last weekend’s aggressive airstrikes against Syrian military targets, officials say that the U.S. is subtly shifting away from increasing its involvement in Syria.
Instead, officials told the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration hopes to patch together an Arab contingent that would replace the U.S. military presence in Syria following the conclusion of the United States’ counter-ISIS mission.
According to these sources, U.S. officials such as new National Security Adviser John Bolton have reached out to officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to ask that they pledge billions of dollars and military contributions to the stabilization of the country following the defeat of the extremist group.
The new Trump proposal resembles past U.S. strategies for reducing its troop presence in foreign conflicts while shifting military duties to handpicked local surrogates. The strategy was known as “Vietnamization” during the war on Vietnam and “Iraqization” during the occupation of Iraq. In both cases, however, the U.S. largely footed the bill and the outcomes were panned as failures.
Watch | Trump seeks to build Arab army to replace US military in Syria
The assemblage of any new Arab coalition to occupy the region and prevent further destabilization in Syria would strain the already-taxed militaries of Gulf Arab nations, who have clamored for U.S. military assistance in Yemen and, in the case of Egypt, Israeli airstrikes on its own territory.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told the Wall Street Journal that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already occupied with the war in Yemen while Egypt would be reluctant to defend territory that wasn’t already under the control of the Syrian government. “There is just no precedent or established basis for this shaping into a successful strategy,” he added.
Watch | Trump: Saudi Arabia Might ‘Have to Pay’ For US to Keep Troops in Syria
“Let the other people take care of it”
In recent weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has publicly dithered about the U.S. military presence in Syria, a waffling that has included both military threats against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and vows that U.S. troops must come home soon. Late last month at a campaign rally in Ohio, Trump shocked members of his cabinet when he gave a meandering campaign speech that seemed to signal that he had always been opposed to the U.S. intervention in Syria:
We spent [$7 trillion]— and I was against it from the beginning … And, by the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now … Very soon, we’re coming out. We’re going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it — sometimes referred to as ‘land.’ … we’re going to be coming out of there real soon.”
U.S. officials claim that anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 ISIS fighters remain in eastern Syria. However, the governments of Bashar al-Assad and allied Russia have accused the U.S.-led coalition of working alongside ISIS and the former al-Qaeda affiliates of the Jabhat al-Nusra group in a bid to complicate the stabilization of government rule by the Syrian Arab Army and Russian Aerospace Forces.
Watch | Russia accused US of occupying Syria’s al-Tanf, hindering aid access
According to officials, the new force would be tasked with working alongside local Arab and Kurdish fighters to prevent Iran-aligned militia and ISIS holdouts from gaining a foothold in territories formerly held by the group.
Private mercenary firm executive Erik Prince, the notorious founder of Blackwater USA, said that he has been informally contacted by Arab officials about patching together an occupying force, but he said that he would wait until Trump moves forward before making any moves.
Watch | Trump asks Saudi Arabia King Salman for 4 Billion Dollars for Syria
Saudis seething as they’re asked to pay up?
Last December, Trump reportedly asked Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for $4 billion to fund the U.S. presence in Syria and help rebuild and stabilize areas seized from ISIS without ceding ground to the Syrian government. While Trump believed that the king agreed to the deal, Riyadh apparently was mystified by his claims that the kingdom would foot the U.S. bill.
Cracks between the U.S. and its Saudi ally also revealed themselves at last weekend’s 29th Arab Summit in the Saudi-held eastern province of Dammam – renamed the Jerusalem Summit – where King Salman pledged to uphold the Palestinian cause. This came in spite of pro-Israeli messages from his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as denunciations of the Saudi détente with Zionism across the Arab world.
Watch | Saudi King Salman concludes ‘Jerusalem Summit’ in Dhahran
Writing for Al-Monitor, analyst Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution saw the messaging at the summit as a sign that “the Saudis also are frustrated that Trump talks tough on Iran but has avoided confrontation with Tehran in Syria and elsewhere.” However, he added, Riyadh hasn’t given up on the president yet, after having “put their prestige behind the Trump administration,” especially after the promotion of now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton, both firm anti-Iran figures.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE don’t appear too eager to fight their own battles. During the U.S.-led offensive on ISIS territories in Northern Syria, a request by Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Gulf states commit special-operations commandos to the mission, rather than flying “high-end air-force fighter jets and so forth“ at 30,000 feet, elicited no positive response.
On Tuesday, however, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that despite declining the last administration’s requests by the U.S. to send troops, this time Riyadh is open to the possibility.
“We are in discussions with the U.S., and have been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, about sending forces into Syria,” Jubeir said.
In spite of the non-committal expression of openness to the possibility, Riyadh is no doubt disappointed that the U.S. military won’t do the bulk of heavy lifting in the simmering proxy wars that extend across the Middle East.
Top Photo | U.S. and Saudi troops engage in a joint training exercise in Saudi Arabia. (U.S. Army Photo)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.