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Areas freed from Islamic State will test U.S. policy on limiting overseas role

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As U.S.-backed forces succeed in driving Islamic State militants from territory in Iraq and now Syria, the Trump administration has difficult choices — and divided opinions — about how the heavily devastated region can recover in an era when U.S. policy is to take a back-seat role.

The administration has stated unequivocally that it is no longer in the “nation-building business.” But the desire to avoid getting enmeshed in rebuilding civilian institutions conflicts with the need to reconstruct towns that forces backed by the United States fought so hard to liberate and the hope of avoiding conditions that would allow Islamic militants to regain a foothold, as they have done before.

Some of Trump’s advisors are arguing for a longer U.S. presence in Syria, according to a person familiar with the debate who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The goal would be to guarantee deliveries of humanitarian aid and oversee repatriation of the displaced, the start of rebuilding and the setting up of local governments.

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Others, however, want to hew more closely to the “no more nation-building” doctrine.

Current policy is that “we will restore basic services,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, ticking off tasks such as removing rubble, clearing mines and connecting electricity, “not the nation-building that the U.S. government previously engaged in other countries.”

The administration plan is for nations like Saudi Arabia to fill the void.

But Saudi Arabia’s mission has not always been what Washington considers constructive. In the aftermath of the Balkans wars in the 1990s, foreign policy experts note, it was Saudi Arabia that used the distribution of aid and the building of mosques and housing to spread radical Islam in Bosnia, where until then a moderate, secular form of the faith was observed.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a mission to begin building alternatives to U.S. leadership in the region, presiding over the first meeting of the new Saudi-Iraqi Coordinating Council inaugurated in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“We urge you to expand this vital partnership,” Tillerson told Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the prime minister of Iraq, Haider Abadi, in an elaborate signing ceremony. “The growing relationship between the kingdom and Iraq … will be vital to Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.”

Tillerson said the signs look good: He pointed to the first commercial air traffic between Baghdad and Riyadh resuming last week after decades.

Most important for the Trump administration is the bulwark that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab neighbors can form against Iran, the Saudis’ hated regional rival. The Shiite-dominated government in Tehran has steadily expanded its military, economic and political influence throughout Iraq, Syria and as far as Yemen and Afghanistan.

Iranian-backed militias that have been active in Iraq “need to go home,” Tillerson said. “It will strengthen the relationship again of Iraq with the Arab world,” which suffered in recent decades of conflict.

Whatever the difficulties in Iraq, the situation in Syria represents a far greater challenge.

On Friday, U.S.-backed forces declared Raqqah, the city in eastern Syria that was the Islamic State capital, “totally liberated.” Tillerson described the Raqqah offensive as a “critical milestone.”

Iraq, at least, has a recognized central government that the United States can work with. Syria is still trapped in civil war; the U.S. has several unappealing choices, including the ceding of control to the reviled government of President Bashar Assad or allowing Russia — or even Iran — to take over.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. backed in ousting Islamic State from Raqqah, is predominantly Kurdish, with few ties to the local population.

As a start, the U.S. has joined in the formation of a Raqqah Civil Council made up of tribal leaders, but it is not yet clear how much authority they will wield in a community that has been torn asunder, hundreds of thousands of Raqqah’s residents having fled.

Those who want a greater U.S. role, including a number of members of Congress, argue that failure to follow through could allow a backslide and a return of Islamic State militants.

“The United States must play a leading role in working with our partners to ensure that post-[Islamic State] areas and communities receive appropriate support,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week, with emphasis on the word “appropriate.”

He is in talks with the State Department, he said, to “bring the full scope of its diplomatic and development expertise to bear” in Iraq and Syria.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and senior State Department official, testified to Congress earlier this month about the need to keep a robust U.S. military presence in the area.

“The ostensible purpose” would be “to protect enclaves and U.S. partners from a resurgence of terrorism, but it would also implicitly put military pressure on Damascus and Iran to negotiate seriously” in the search for a political solution to Syria’s civil war, he said.

With the fighting still fresh, the Pentagon has not yet revealed its next steps. The U.S. has roughly 7,000 American troops in Iraq and about 500 in Syria. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi has shown willingness to keep U.S. troops in Iraq even after the battle against Islamic State concludes.

But the Syrian Kurds most responsible for the liberation of Raqqah are already planning for a future without the United States. They watched warily as Washington seemed to abandon its long-time allies, the Kurds in Iraq, who were instrumental in driving Islamic State from the militants’ largest city in Iraq, Mosul.

Iraqi Arab forces moved in recent days to take back areas long dominated by the Kurds, centered on the oil-rich Kirkuk region. The Trump administration said it would remain neutral but also voiced support for a united, federal Iraq, one without major autonomy for the Kurds.

Randa Slim, a conflict-resolution expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said Syrian Kurds “are already casting a wider net” in search of partners and support.

Losing the Syrian Kurds as allies may be inevitable: Supremely pragmatic, they have never completely cut ties with Assad and Russia.

“The Americans were useful to them, but they were not in dreamland, thinking that the Americans were ever anything more than occasional, useful partners,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president for analysis and research at the Middle East Institute.

As with Iraq, the administration is turning to Saudi Arabia for help in Syria. Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the 73-nation coalition against Islamic State, quietly toured enclaves around Raqqah last week, with a guest in tow: Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Sabhan. They met with the Raqqah Civil Council, among others.

McGurk “is sending a signal to the Sunni Arabs,” Slim said, “giving an Arab component to the recovery … and enticing money towards reconstruction, when he knows the Americans won’t come.“

Staff writer WJ Hennigan contributed to this report.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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