U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis to talk
Islamic State, Syria in Middle East
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[April 18, 2017]
By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On his first trip as
U.S defense secretary to parts of the Middle East and Africa, Jim Mattis
will focus on the fight against Islamic State and articulating President
Donald Trump's policy toward Syria, officials and experts say.
His trip may give clarity to adversaries and allies alike about the
Trump administration's tactics in the fight against Islamic State
militants and its willingness to use military power more liberally 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 U.S. invaded them.
U.S.-backed forces are fighting to retake the Islamic State 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. There are signs that Trump has given the U.S. military more
latitude to use force, including ordering a cruise missile strike
against a Syrian air base and cheering the unprecedented use of a
monster bomb against an Islamic State target in Afghanistan last
week.Administration officials said the U.S. strategy in Syria -- to
defeat Islamic State while still calling for the removal of Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad -- is unchanged, a message Mattis is expected
Arriving in the region on Tuesday, his stops include Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, Qatar and Israel.
"Particularly with the Saudis and the Israelis, part of the discussion
will be clarifying for them what our strategy is towards Syria in light
of the strike," said Christine Wormuth, a former number three at the
Islamic State has lost most of the territory it has held in Iraq since
2014, controlling about 6.8 percent of the nation.
DEEPER INTO YEMEN
The United States also is considering deepening its role in Yemen's
conflict by more directly aiding its Gulf allies that are battling
Houthi rebels who have some Iranian support, officials say, potentially
relaxing a U.S. policy that limited American support.
"The Saudi concern is strategically Iran... The near-term Saudi concern
is how they send a message to the Iranians in Yemen, and they would like
full-throated American support," said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle
East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think
tank in Washington.
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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is seen at the Pentagon in
Arlington, VA, U.S. April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
The review of possible new U.S. assistance, which includes
intelligence support, would come amid evidence that Iran is sending
advanced weapons and military advisers to the Houthis.
Congressional sources say the Trump administration is on the verge
of notifying Congress of the proposed sale of precision-guided
munitions to Saudi Arabia. Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed
concern about civilian casualties in Riyadh's campaign in Yemen.
Experts say Egyptian officials are likely to seek more support from
Mattis, a retired Marine general, for fighting militants in the
country's Sinai peninsula.
Islamic State has waged a low-level war against soldiers and police
in the Sinai for years, but increasingly is targeting Christians and
broadening its reach to Egypt's heart.
"They would also like more American support in fighting terrorism in
the Sinai peninsula and they like more American confidence that they
are doing it the right way," said Alterman.
Mattis also will be visiting a U.S. military base in Djibouti, at
the southern entrance to the Red Sea, where operations in Yemen and
Somalia are staged, and just miles from a new Chinese installation.
The White House recently granted the U.S. military broader authority
to carry out strikes against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants in
Last week the Pentagon announced that a few dozen U.S. troops had
been deployed to Somalia to train members of the Somali National
(Editing by John Walcott and Alistair Bell)
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