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US Sees No Place for Saudi Ground Troops in ISIS Fight

June 28, 2016 (Photo Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The anti-Islamic State coalition will pass on Saudi Arabia’s offer to send ground troops into the fight, the US representative to the coalition told Congress on Tuesday. 

Saudi Arabia in February announced it would send its troops if the US and other allied partners approved. But that won’t be happening, as the 66-member coalition plans to stick with only local ground troops, Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

“In terms of ground capability, I think our focus on empowering local actors to liberate their own territory is the most sustainable strategy for defeating ISIL, and will remain our fundamental approach,” McGurk said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

It’s unclear whether Saudi Arabia's offer was anything more than a bluff, as the Saudi military has been battling rebel forces in Yemen for months as part of the larger Saudi-Iran rivalry. Analysts say Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to commit to the fight when the Islamic State is a check on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Iran.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., asked McGurk to gauge how “real” Saudi Arabia’s commitment is to the fight—especially the air campaign. 

“The Saudis are very focused on Yemen, and we hope as the peace process gets underway and it winds down, we will see an increased focus on [the air campaign],” McGurk said. “Of course we want them to join the air campaign, and we’ve heard requests for troops on the ground.”

After a February meeting of defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Pentagon announced broad support among coalition partners, including a pledge from Saudi Arabia that it would be “reinvigorating” its role in air strikes. 

Amid Corker’s questions, McGurk focused on the contribution Saudi Arabia could make in the war of ideas. When Saudi representatives met with President Obama at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh in April, McGurk said, they acknowledged the Islamic State was a fundamental threat to the kingdom. 

Corker cut in:

“But as it relates to them actually participating, they cite in closed doors with us — it’s not confidential — they cite the lack of US leadership and their distrust, and therefore their unwillingness to get engaged,” Corker said. “I relate on the ideological, back to what’s happening on the ground, especially in Syria, are the comments they’re making real?”

McGurk again demurred, saying he could provide Corker details “in a different setting,” a likely reference to a classified hearing.

“We would like to see countries participate in the air campaign,” McGurk said. “The Jordanians have been participating in the air campaign, and we need more assets in the sky as we develop more intelligence and more targets.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked McGurk whether US assistance toward Riyadh’s air campaign against Yemen is undermining its efforts to enroll Saudi Arabia in airstrikes against the Islamic State. Murphy has been critical of US air-to-ground munition sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, citing its contribution the humanitarian crisis there. 

McGurk said Saudi Arabia has a “right to act” against a threat on its border, but the US is supporting a political process in Yemen to free up resources to fight the Islamic State.

“As these multiple conflicts have gone on, it’s reduced the resources over the skies of Syria,” McGurk said. “That said, over the past weeks and months, we have had more coalition partners extend their strikes into Syria.”

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