US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
The Trump administration is trying to determine its long-term goals in eastern Syria as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman visits the United States.
Since the visit of Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan to eastern Syria in October, there have been hints that the kingdom could play a role in reconstruction efforts. Now The Washington Post has reported that US President Donald Trump asked the Saudi king in December for up to $4 billion in commitments to help rebuild eastern Syria.
The reports of the request come as the crown prince is in Washington. Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, tweeted on Tuesday that the visit “represents a continuation of the strategic cooperation and friendship between our two countries.”
Riyadh speaks in only general terms of what the crown prince hopes to accomplish in Washington. However, the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that the visit “carries special significance to the Arab world. In an area that was torn by regional interferences, we see the political weight of Arabs making a strong comeback with the prince’s visit.”
An article at Al-Arabiya television’s website suggested that Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan were working closely to counter Iran’s influence that represented “geostrategic and geopolitical expansion from Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.”
This is the “corridor” or “bridge” that Iran seeks to the sea which many policy- makers say is a major concern regarding the Islamic Republic’s power in the region. References to “strategic” discussions therefore are aimed at countering Tehran’s role, which Riyadh sees as a major threat.
The desire to use the kingdom’s wealth to help rebuild and stabilize eastern Syria can be read two ways. US media reports indicate that the December phone call with Trump was aimed at “hastening a US exit from Syria.” Iran’s Press TV, which represents the regime, interpreted that phone call as relating to a US desire to “roll back” Iran’s influence in Syria.
The two goals do not appear to go together. If Saudi Arabia is expected to pour money into eastern Syria, it can only work as long as there is a US security umbrella, which involves the US air force, some ground troops and local security forces. The US has been training thousands of members of the Syrian Democratic Forces to secure eastern Syria. But Washington and the coalition against ISIS still want to defeat the extremists who hold pockets along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border.
Because of Turkey’s offensive in Afrin, there was a pause in offensives against ISIS. That means there is a lot of work to be done. If the US wants to stop Iran’s influence in Syria, the money from Riyadh can’t simply plug the gaps as the US leaves, the US has to stay for the long haul.
A senior US official was quoted by The Denver Post
saying that “convincing arguments have been made that some bad entity is going to be there [in Syria]... that seems to have carried the day for the time being, but I don’t think anybody wants an indefinite [US] presence.”
Since the October visit there have been no specifics about the Saudi commitment to Syria. The US administration is also hamstrung by the fact that secretary of state Rex Tillerson was recently fired. In addition, Riyadh is in the midst of a crises with Qatar that has led to major lobbying efforts by Doha in Washington.
From Israel’s point of view, close cooperation by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US in eastern Syria to block Iran’s influence would be welcomed. Israel opposes Iran putting down more roots in Syria and Lebanon. Muhammad bin Salman’s visit therefore has major ramifications for the region, especially if a real commitment and a strategy with Washington come out of the meetings.