Blackwater founder Erik Prince says he has been informally contacted by Arab officials looking to marshal a multi-national force in Syria which would be able to fill any "security vacuum" left by a United States withdrawal - similar to the one which allowed ISIS to flourish when President Obama pulled US troops out of Iraq.
The security force would have two goals: stop ISIS from reestablishing a presence in Syria, while also stopping Iran or Iranian-backed sources from doing the same (though Israel already has the latter pretty well under control).
The mission of the regional force would be to work with the local Kurdish and Arab fighters the U.S. has been supporting to ensure Islamic State cannot make a comeback and preclude Iranian-backed forces from moving into former Islamic State territory, U.S. officials say. -WSJ
Filling the void
As we reported yesterday, President Trump has already reached out to Egypt and the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, to contribute funds and manpower for the restoration of areas in Syria formerly held by the Islamic State.
“We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing larger amounts of money,” he said. “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria,” Trump said last Friday. “It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better. But it’s a troubled place.”
While Trump and his advisors say they want to withdraw the 2,000 or so US troops in Syria as soon as possible, according to the Wall Street Journal, Trump's new neocon National Security Advisor John Bolton has discussed the possibility of contributing troops with Egypt's top intelligence official - allegedly one of the most influential figures in Egypt's military-led regime.
Pentagon officials say that while ISIS has lost around 90% of their foothold in Syria, it still remains strong in pockets along the border with Iraq and others - home to an estimated 5,000 - 12,000 ISIS fighters.
Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News that while it made sense for the U.S. to ask Arab partners to do more, "this nascent plan is likely to run into a number of problems."
None of the proposed partners had taken the lead in fighting ISIS in Syria so far, with that role occupied by the Kurds — a group who Joscelyn noted "are not natural allies for any of the regional states mentioned." -VICE
Jocelyn notes that the Gulf states have provided support for Sunni extremist groups - making them an "unnatural fit" for the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, while Egypt hasn't officially picked a side in the Syrian conflict, it has made occasional pro-Assad statements.
"Moreover, Egypt has its hands full battling an ISIS insurgency in the Sinai and hasn't played a leadership role in fighting ISIS outside of its own turf," said Joscelyn.
"In essence, the Trump administration wants to build a new anti-ISIS alliance in Syria that has not previously existed on the ground and which would bring with it all sorts of competing interests that don't necessarily align with America's."
An Arab coalition of Sunni-dominated governments exists to combat ISIS and other terrorist groups. The 41 member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition was formed in December 2015, though it wouldn't hold its first meeting until nearly two years later. It's mandate is to fight terrorism in Shia-dominated Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan - along with Syria. In November 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, announced that he would use the coalition to "wipe terrorists from earth."
Speaking at a summit of defence ministers from across 41 majority-Muslim countries he spoke of a need for a “pan-Islamic united front” against terrorism.
He said: “In past years, terrorism has been functioning in all of our countries… with no coordination among national authorities.
“That ends today, with this alliance.” -express.co.uk
The Muslim alliance and their first official meeting under bin Salman two days after Egypt's worst terrorism incident in which 25-30 attackers reportedly brandishing an Islamic State flag assaulted a mosque, killing 305 including 27 children.
That said, the new plan (which may include Erik Prince) would combine manpower, military equipment and funding to focus specifically on Syria.
Trump's tap dance
Trump first alluded to his push to recruit regional partners on Friday, as he was launching the missile strikes. Indeed, the plan to recruit regional partners came about following Trump's insistence that the US pull out as quickly as possible.
Mr. Trump, who has expressed growing impatience with the cost and duration of the effort to stabilize Syria, alluded to the push on Friday night, 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," Mr. Trump said.
In early April, Mr. Trump spoke about the need to speed the withdrawal of the 2,000 troops the U.S. 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 Islamic State to return or ceding hard-won gains to Iranian-backed forces in the country.
Now let's see if Trump can actually get this deal going and actually pull off a withdrawal from Syria - maybe even leaving it in the capable hands of a multi-national force from the Gulf states, trained by Erik Prince.