Saudi Arabia said it is in discussions with the United States about sending troops to Syria as the Trump administration seeks ways to stabilize the country’s northeast while winding down its own military presence.
Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the deliberations on what type of force needs to remain in eastern Syria and where that force would come from are “ongoing.”
“We are in discussions with the U.S. and have been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis about sending forces into Syria,” he said, adding that the offer to send troops had been made previously under the Obama administration but ultimately was not accepted.
The Trump administration has said it is trying to persuade countries in the Persian Gulf to pick up the financial and military burden of stabilization as it draws down U.S. forces. The White House reiterated Monday that President Trump still wants to see an early exit for U.S. troops from Syria after French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that American forces may remain longer-term.
But the administration also has expressed its desire to contain Iran and continue to defeat Islamic State militants.
Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, recently called Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel to ask if Cairo would contribute troops to an Arab force that could replace American troops in Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing U.S. officials.
Jubeir, who was commenting in response to a question about the report, said that in regard to finances, Saudi Arabia has “always maintained its share of the burden.”
However, assembling a pan-Arab force is likely to be a challenge. It is unclear how willing Saudi Arabia would be to follow through on sending troops. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates already have troops tied up in the bloody civil war in Yemen.
Recent comments from Jubeir and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have also pointed to a shift in Saudi Arabia’s position on Syria, toward an acceptance that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not going to be ousted from power anytime soon.
“Bashar is staying,” the crown prince recently told Time magazine.
During a meeting of representatives from the 22-member Arab League this week, Jubeir also stressed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to keeping Syrian institutions intact.
Egypt, meanwhile, has tacitly expressed support for Assad in the war, raising doubts about its willingness to commit troops to areas outside government control. The government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has been generally reluctant to send its troops abroad. Sissi has refused a request by Saudi Arabia — his close ally and one of Egypt’s largest financial patrons — to commit troops to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and others, has said for years that it is willing to send troops to Syria, but it never has. During the Obama administration, Riyadh complained that the United States had too little “skin in the game” and said it would not contribute ground troops in the absence of a coherent plan for their use — side by side with U.S. forces — and a strategy for success.
With great fanfare in December 2015, the Saudis announced the formation of an “Islamic military alliance,” headquartered in Riyadh, to combat global terrorism. In a news conference, Mohammed, then deputy crown prince, said that forces would be drawn together from “all over the Islamic world” to be deployed as needed to fight terrorism. The force has never materialized in any meaningful way.
Two months later, at another Riyadh news conference, officials from the Saudi military said it was “ready to participate in any ground operations” in Syria, stipulating that it would contribute to an effort led by U.S. forces. The Emiratis made a similar offer.
While Saudi Arabia has waged war for several years in Yemen, its campaign has been largely conducted from the air, and the Saudis have not committed large numbers of ground troops.
Trump has not clarified what he is seeking in terms of financial and military contributions from the Persian Gulf states to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The approximately 2,000 U.S. troops there do not participate directly in combat operations but train and arm locally recruited forces, whom they also advise and assist with airstrikes and intelligence.
Under stabilization plans for areas liberated from the militants, the Americans have organized mine-clearing and infrastructure reconstruction operations, and served as a buttress to keep other forces from taking over cleared areas. Those are some of the tasks Trump has indicated that partner forces, especially from the gulf, should take over once the remaining Islamic State pockets have been eliminated.
In a telephone conversation late last year, Trump asked Saudi King Salman for $4 billion to pay for stabilization efforts in Syria.