Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Erik Prince says mercenaries could replace US troops in Syria

His suggestion may gain traction following a major ISIS attack on American soldiers in Manbij

US armoured vehicles at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.  AFP 
US armoured vehicles at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.  AFP 

American troops in Syria could be replaced with private military contractors, Erik Prince, a former executive at security firm Blackwater has said.

His suggestion comes at a time when US President Donald Trump is looking to withdraw his country’s approximately 2000 troops from Syria. It also preceded an ISIS attack on American troops in the Syrian city of Manbij on Wednesday that incurred the largest loss of US life in the country since an anti-ISIS coalition was created in 2014.

“American history is filled with public and private partnerships, of places that the private sector can fill those gaps, where a very expensive military probably shouldn’t be,” Mr Prince said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday.

“The United States doesn’t have a long-term strategic obligation to stay in Syria. But, I also think it’s not a good idea to abandon our allies.”

The pitch is not new. Mr Prince has made a similar $5 billion proposal in the past to privatise the war in Afghanistan.

Former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis blocked the proposal at the time. But with him gone and with Mr Trump itching for an exit from the “land of sand and death”, the proposal is being taken more seriously.

Mr Prince is holding meetings in Washington this week to sell his pitch to policymakers and Syria watchers.

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The US would not be the first state to send mercenaries to Syria. Russia is known to have dispatched private military contractors to help the Syrian government recapture territory from ISIS in eastern parts of the country.

Many of these mercenaries are contracted with the Wagner group, a Russian military contractor originally established to fight for Moscow in eastern Ukraine. The company is linked to businessman Yevgeny Prighozin, nicknamed "Putin’s chef" for his catering work with the Kremlin.

Faysal Itani, a leading Syria expert at the Atlantic Council is not the least surprised by Mr Prince’s push. “It does tick some boxes in Washington because it avoids two things the president hates: paying for missions abroad and deploying soldiers in complex Middle East conflicts” Mr Itani told The National.

It is not immediately clear who would pay for a private army to replace 2000 US troops in Syria. However, Mr Itani said that the possibility of funding from Gulf states is plausible.

“US withdrawal from Syria represents a serious strategic loss for the Gulf states, since the US presence is seen as a tactical and strategic counter to Iran,” he said.

“They would likely see a private military presence by a US firm as better than nothing, because it would indicate continued US commitment and also a potential ‘tripwire’ for US retaliation (and therefore re-involvement) in the event these personnel come under attack from adversaries of the United States.”

Arab States have been reluctant to dispatch their own troops to Syria in the past despite it being discussed with Washington.

Still, a private military force in Syria could be a recipe for more problems, not less, argued Matt Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Security Studies group.

“US private contractors are not the same entity as US armed forces” Mr Brodsky told The National describing a complicated protection framework and possible clash of interests down the road.

“Of course Syria has been the ultimate proxy war: Russia uses "little green men" and Iran uses Shia militias, but the security service Mr. Prince is speaking of pertains only to protecting Kurds” he said.

In contrast “the presence of US troops in Syria (since 2014) has contributed to promoting US goals that went far beyond the military mission of defeating ISIS, such as playing the role of a deterrent,” he said.

“Private contractors will likely not achieve the same objectives” Mr Brodsky said.

The idea of a private force will also raise new questions on who will protect this force in an event it comes under attack. “When Russia's 'little green men' [private military contractors] and others tried to cross the Euphrates last February to attack US Kurdish allies and our nearby forces, our Air Force responded decisively. Would they do so for private security contractors?” Mr Brodsky asks.

He was referring to an incident in which US forces killed between 200-300 pro-government fighters, including Russian mercenaries contracted with the controversial Wagner group, who were approaching US-controlled oil and gas fields in Syria’s east.

These reasons will unlikely dissuade Mr Prince from making his case to send private contractors to Syria, as Mr Trump aides put together the US withdrawal charts and speed up consultations with Turkey, Israel and Arab States.

Updated: January 17, 2019 07:59 AM

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