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April 18, 2018 1:32 pm

‘ISIS Only, or a Real Effort Against Iranian Aggression?’ Former Bush Administration Official Elliot Abrams on Trump’s Syria Dilemma

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Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (R)  hosting Iran’s military chief, General Mohammad Baqeri, in Damascus, October 2017. Photo: SANA / Reuters.

As speculation grew on Wednesday over the prospect of a unified Arab military presence replacing US troops currently stationed in Syria, one of America’s leading foreign policy analysts cautioned against overly-high expectations of such a force, arguing that the larger issue of President Donald Trump’s overarching strategy in the region remains unaddressed.

“It all depends on what the president decides is our goal in the Middle East: ISIS only, or a real effort against Iranian aggression,” Elliott Abrams — who served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration — told The Algemeiner, when asked about what the mandate of such a force might involve.

A number of US media outlets reported on Wednesday that John Bolton, the newly-appointed national security adviser to President Donald Trump, had sounded out Egyptian, UAE, Saudi, Jordanian and other Arab leaders about contributing troops and funds to the prospective force — not the first time, reminded Abrams, that such an idea has been raised.

“Years ago, during the Obama administration, the Saudis and others told the US they would join us in efforts against Iran,” Abrams said. “The Obama administration was interested only in the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran), and did not wish to push back on Iran energetically lest that nuclear deal be put in jeopardy.”

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Abrams, who is now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, DC, speculated that “perhaps the Arabs are making the same offer again.”

Either way, he added, “let’s be clear: they will join with us and follow, but only if we lead.”

Abrams emphasized that “the United States needs to make the key decision: to push back against Iran or not.”

Asked about how Israel might respond to such a force, Abrams suggested that the government and the IDF would be underwhelmed by its impact.

“Israel knows that the presence of some Arab troops may add some legitimacy, but will add little or nothing militarily,” he said. “They will not object.”

At the same time, Abrams questioned the efficacy of assembling such a force.

“Arab states have little or no expeditionary capability,” he said. “(Egyptian President Abdel Fattah) el-Sisi declined the Saudi request to participate in the war in Yemen, knowing that his army was not able to do it. So I would view Arab participation as an important political gesture, with little military significance.”

An estimated 2,000 US troops are currently spread across hundreds of miles of territory in northeastern Syria, where their mission since 2015 has focused on the defeat of ISIS. President Trump’s off-the-cuff remark on Apr. 4 about drawing down the US presence “very soon” — subsequently walked back by the White House — has fueled concerns that Trump does not consider blocking Iran’s expansion into Syria, in the wake of the military defeats inflicted on ISIS, to be a priority. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is known to be anxious about the proximity of US personnel to Iranian, Syrian regime and Russian troops, as well as the growing number of Islamist militias and foreign mercenaries who are also on the ground.

While US defense officials have spoken in general terms since Trump’s Apr. 4 comment about ongoing efforts in Syria, their published statements have avoided discussion of Iran as a factor that the US or its potential successor force in the war-ravaged country will have to contend with. On Apr. 5, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders specified that “the United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” but would not conjecture over when precisely the US would consider its mission to have been achieved.

“That determination will be made by the Department of Defense and the secretary of defense,” she said.

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