President Donald Trump’s newly minted national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo are among those spearheading a push to build a coalition of Arab military forces that could replace US troops in Syria and serve as a stabilizing force in the region once ISIS is defeated, according to sources familiar with internal discussions.
While convincing nations like Saudi Arabia to join the cause is sure to come at a price, the Trump administration is considering an offer that includes putting a compelling reward on the table, a source close to the White House told CNN.
A similar concept was initially floated in 2013 as part of the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS strategy, but the idea of establishing an Arab force aligned with US interests recently picked up new momentum after President Donald Trump declared that he wants to withdraw US troops from Syria and have other countries “take care of it.”
“The President has made clear he wishes to see the US continue and complete the campaign against ISIS in Northeast Syria. The President has also made clear he believes regional and local parties – regional and local forces need to take on this struggle as they themselves are directly exposed to the consequences of a resurgence of ISIS,” David M. Satterfield, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs told lawmakers on Wednesday.
“Therefore, we are reaching out to partners across the region to see what form of contribution – and not just financial – they may make to sustaining this fight beyond the destruction of ISIS,” Satterfield said during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Specifically, the US is pursuing contributions from Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help counter Iran in Syria by filling the void should the US significantly reduce its footprint in the country.
While Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against alleged chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian regime has amplified the debate over the administration’s long-term goals, the move has not derailed efforts to convince other nations to take on a larger role going forward.
A source close to the White House told CNN on Tuesday that despite initial concerns that Trump would withdraw from Syria in the very near term, discussions have shifted toward developing a transition plan and that the administration is continuing its push to enlist the help of several Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
This 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.
CNN reported earlier this month that the White House was pushing for a deal with Saudi Arabia and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that would allow Trump to reduce the number of US troops in Syria but also address the laundry list of concerns expressed by top military officials who cautioned against a hasty withdrawal.
A source familiar with the internal discussions told CNN at the time that the White House has been seeking additional assistance from Saudi Arabia, which the administration has worked to convince to send money and troops.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, 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.
Where do things stand?
While the Trump administration remains engaged in talks with some Arab nations about the possibility of building some sort of a regional coalition, it appears that a formal agreement has not been reached at this point.
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.
Still, top members of Trump’s national security team – including Bolton and Pompeo – have indicated that they support the proposal.
Specifically, 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 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 forseeable future,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security Fellow at the Center 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.
A tall task
Despite indications that there could be room for the US and several Arab nations to negotiate some sort of an agreement related to Syria, the process of building an effective coalition of Arab nations committed to maintaining US strategic interests could be more difficult than it appears on paper.
“I don’t know if the US should put full confidence in any regional partner when it comes to stabilizing Syria,” Heras told CNN, adding that even the most capable Arab partners are also engaged in other conflicts that will likely continue to consume their attention.
While Heras views Tuesday’s comments from the Saudi foreign minister as a “good start,” the reality is that they have a difficult time defending their own southern border against the Houthis in Yemen, he said.
The conflict in Yemen also reveals many of the issues that arise when US-Arab partners are left to organize their own operations, he added, pointing out 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.
“I think a genuine concern should be 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 our hands to become involved in the civil war in ways that are not in our best interest,” said CNN military analyst John Kirby.
The UAE is also engaged in Yemen and, while they have demonstrated an ability to coordinate with various allies, they could be wary of contributing to a force in Syria at the same time.
Egypt may 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.
There is also the question of whether Arab nations would be up for the task from a military standpoint.
Despite purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of US defense 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, Kirby said.
And 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 refueling aircraft to sustain constant flight missions and the resources to establish security for bases inside Syria for multiple Arab nations.
“They would need – and probably demand – US logistical, ISR, and enabling support that, again, raises the stakes and costs of deeper American involvement in the civil war,” Kirby said.
CNN’s Jenna McLaughlin, Barbara Starr, Nicole Gaouette, Laura Koran and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.