Washington – Officials and experts believe that US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ first trip to the Middle East and North Africa will focus on the war against the ISIS terror group and reveal President Donald Trump’s policy on Syria.
Mattis will be visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Israel on a trip which may give clarity on the Trump administration’s willingness to use more military power than former President Barack Obama did.
One of the main questions from allies about Syria is whether Washington has formulated a strategy to prevent areas seized from militants from collapsing into ethnic and sectarian feuds or succumbing to a new generation of extremism, as parts of Iraq and Afghanistan have done since the United States invaded them.
US-backed forces are fighting to retake the ISIS strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and questions remain about what will happen after that and what role other allies such as Saudi Arabia, can play.
Administration officials said the US strategy in Syria — to defeat ISIS while still calling for the removal of Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad — is unchanged, a message Mattis is expected to reinforce.
A Reuters report indicates that Trump has given the US military more freedom to use force, which was demonstrated by his recent order for strikes against a Syrian airbase. The strike was a response to the regime’s chemical attack against the town of Khan Sheikhun earlier this month.
Trump’s policy on Syria began to take shape following its Cruise missile strike. It calls for defeating ISIS, cementing stability, reaching a transition period and managing the country in the post-transition phase.
An official US source, who chose to remain anonymous, told the Associated Press that in the first phase of the Syria policy, Washington is not seeking to send forces overthrow Assad.
For the second phase, the Trump administration has spoken about “interim zones of stability.” These would be different than the “safe zones” the Obama administration considered but never opted for because they would have required a US military presence to enforce, potentially putting American aircraft in conflict with the Syrian regime jets.
Under Trump’s plan, the regime would be party to the stability zones and US or Arab aircraft could ostensibly patrol them without clashing with Syrian warplanes.
With security restored, the administration hopes local leaders who were forced to flee can return and lead local governments. They could help restore basic services and police Syria. The basic idea would be Sunni forces policing predominantly Sunni areas, Kurdish forces policing Kurdish areas and so on.
The third phase of the policy calls for Assad to step down from power. His departure could occur in various ways. One possibility foresees elections held under a new constitution, with Assad barred from running. Another option aims to use the threat of war crimes charges as leverage. While the administration believes Syria’s regime is culpable, the key is connecting the war crimes to Assad himself.
Beyond Russia, Assad is supported by Iran. And the Trump administration hasn’t said anything yet about working with Tehran to promote peace in Syria. Still, it believes the threat of a war crimes investigation and an offer of safe exile somewhere outside Syria, possibly Iran or Russia, could be potentially persuasive.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s foreign minister last week in Moscow that such an offer and Assad’s voluntary departure is the administration’s preferred path, officials said.
“The longer time goes by, it’s possible that the case will be made,” Tillerson said during a news conference. “And there are certain individuals who are working to make that case.”
The Trump administration has also not ruled out the possibility that Assad could be ousted and killed by his opponents.
As for the post-transition phase and despite differences, Trump officials insist Russia’s involvement is critical to resolving the war.
It seeks Russian support by guaranteeing Russian access to the Tartus naval base and Latakia air base in any post-Assad scenario. Yet it’s unclear how the US could make such an assurance given the uncertainty of who would be running Syria at that point.