Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Thursday that the United States would regret installing a retention force in Syria without US involvement, indicating that military leaders harbor reservations about a White House effort to entrust the Arab military with areas stabilized liberated from the Islamic State.
Mattis, under questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee, also offered support for the long-term participation of the United States, along with NATO allies, in the military mission in Iraq to maintain security and prevent the Islamic State from reconstitute there.
The comments come when the Pentagon faces a turning point in both countries. Most of the territory that once was in the hands of the Islamic State has been released, but the threat of a resurgence by the Sunni extremist group still looms in some areas.
They also underscore the tension over how involved the US military should be. UU In control of future threats to security in Iraq and Syria now that the Islamic State is in the last stages after almost four years of war.
The open plans of the military leaders to stabilize Syria were affected by President Trump's demand for a short-term withdrawal. A force of around 2,000 US troops has been working with Kurdish-led militias to push back the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State.
U.S. troops carry out a mortar drill at an outpost near the Iraqi border with Syria. (Susannah George / AP)
In accordance with his desire to share the military burdens with the allies, Trump has asked other countries, including Saudi Arabia, to contribute billions of dollars to the stabilization effort in Syria. The White House is exploring the possibility of deploying an Arab combat force from other countries in the region to shore up cities destroyed by years of bombing and street warfare.
While Saudi Arabia has said it would send troops if such a force joins, officials have not revealed the details of the initiative. A multinational ground force from Arab countries would be highly unusual and would likely face a number of challenges, including limited experience with those military's external operations, political divisions among Arab leaders and the risks of stoking a broader sectarian conflict. .
While Mattis and other military leaders have welcomed the effort to get new help, they have also expressed caution about what such a transition might entail.
Speaking in a telephone interview this week, General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command UU., He said that the United States would welcome the contributions in forces, equipment or funds of the allies of the Middle East in its attempt to stabilize the Syria's cleared areas and ensure the Islamic State can not return. Votel also suggested that the Arab nations' contributions had not been finalized and said the new forces would take time to perfect their operations in such a complex environment as Syria.
"We have a very experienced team on the ground that has been orchestrating this for a couple of years, it would be difficult for someone to intervene and replace us immediately, but certainly with time and experience or maybe with a little situation different on the ground, maybe they could do that, "Votel said on Wednesday.
Votel said that the US military UU They were talking to partners in the region, but that the US military. UU He wants to finish the work that was sent to Syria. "So as we add capabilities we must make sure they are well integrated," he said.
The discussion of an Arab force occurs when the Trump administration tries to reconcile what appear to be divergent descriptions of the Pentagon and the White House on what constitutes a lasting defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and how close the United States is to the victory.
Speaking at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron this week, Trump said he prefers to leave Syria and praised US troops for destroying the Islamic State there and in Iraq.
A day later, Mattis said that the operations are still unfinished and that the US Army. UU He plans to expand his fight against the Islamic State in the coming weeks. The effort will be concentrated in the Middle Euphrates valley, an area in Syria that the Pentagon identified as one of the group's final strongholds, he said, adding that French special forces recently arrived to help.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that backs US troops in Syria, had advanced into the valley earlier this year, but deviated from the fighting when Turkish forces launched an incursion against the Kurdish positions in the country. north. Mattis said that the US Army. UU You are about to revitalize your efforts.
The Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., warned in his testimony on Thursday that the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in late 2011, when the Iraqi government was too weak to secure its territory , gave the Islamic State "space to grow."
Since launching its offensive against the Islamic State in 2014, the US Army UU It has helped local forces in Iraq and Syria to undo almost all the territory that the extremist group once had. Although the figures are far from accurate, estimates suggest that between 1,000 and 3,000 militants remain in both countries.
The US military has limited its role in Syria to the defeat of the Islamic State, apart from a couple of attacks against the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad forces designed to discourage the use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Assad's forces have consolidated gains in the country, moving towards victory over rebel groups in Syria with the help of Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.
A departure from the US military is likely to lead to greater Iranian influence in Syria, a riddle for an administration that wants to withdraw US troops but also does not want to completely give up Syrian territory to Iran.
Trump, at the joint press conference with Macron, seemed to refer to those concerns. "Emmanuel and I have discussed the fact that we do not want to give Iran a season open to the Mediterranean, especially because we really control it to a large extent," Trump said. "We have really controlled it and controlled it." Then we'll see what happens. "
Mattis said that US troops are also planning major operations against the Islamic State in Iraq.
" We continue the fight, and we are going to expand it, and bring more regional support, it's probably change The biggest thing we're doing right now, "Mattis said.
Speaking separately, Votel said the United States was ready to continue its military assistance to the Iraqi government, which has involved advanced military capabilities and support for Iraqi special forces, if asked to do so after the May parliamentary elections in that country.
The responsiveness that the US military has demonstrated to Iraqi requests in the battle against the Islamic State and "our appearance Low visibility "by operating with local forces will help ensure the current influence of the US With a key partner, he said.