So, it looks like we now have another actor getting involved in Syria by putting boots on the ground. On March 29, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to send troops to Manbij in support of the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The goal is to block Turkish advances into the region, and this move will be coordinated with the US military. According to the president, the troops will be sent “very quickly.”
This announcement was made during a time of Turkish threats to drive the Kurds out of Syria’s northern regions. On March 29, President Macron conducted talks with a delegation consisting of Kurdish, Arab, and Christian representatives of Syria’s Kurdish territories. It was the first time Rojava officials had met with the French leader. According to him, between the warring parties. This offer to mediate has already been rejected by Turkey, which sees the SDF as a security threat.
France has always supported the US-led coalition. Officially the announced deployment to Manbij will be pursuing the goal of doing away with the Islamic State (IS), not deterring Turkey. But since the jihadists are no longer a factor with any influence in Syria, Macron’s words sound like a flimsy pretext. However, sending French troops to Manbij would reinforce the American forces there and block any potential Turkish offensive. Or is France about to take over for the US in Syria, since President Trump has stated that American forces will be leaving Syria "very soon"? “Let the other people take care of it now," he added.
His statement contradicts the public position taken by other American top officials, but that’s what the commander-in-chief said. And what “other people” was he talking about? Did the president mean NATO allies, such as France? Or maybe Persian Gulf states? Or both? Does this mean that new actors will appear on the landscape to further complicate things? Could be. As State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert explained, "As a general matter, this administration looks to other countries to help out."
Earlier this month, Marines came in to reinforce the contingent of 1,000 troops stationed at the US-controlled base in Al-Tanf, which controls the intersection of the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian borders. How does this jibe with the plans to pull out? You never know with America’s flip-flop foreign policy.
Does this mean we have a new actor in Syria? President Macron actually backed the idea of a military intervention there, under the auspices of the UN, after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. It would be helpful to remember his statement that France would attack Syria if chemical weapons were used. Paris expressed its willingness to do the same thing the US has said it would do. France was the only European NATO member that threatened a strike. Paris has been highly critical of Ankara’s policy in Syria. It views Operation Olive Branch as an invasion that is intended to cause problems.
A lot of things have changed since President Macron came to power more than a year ago. His Middle East ambitions became evident once the UK became preoccupied with Brexit and Germany lost so much time trying to form a coalition government. Last year, the French president was personally involved in finding a solution to Lebanon’s internal political crisis. Paris is an important arms exporter to the region, and its customers include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. It tried to mediate the crisis in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Macron is also currently offering his help as a go-between to mitigate the differences between Washington and Tehran over the Iran deal. If the US loses interest in the region, relinquishing the driver’s seat, filling that vacuum would be a chance for France to make a pitch for itself as the foremost European power on the world stage.
Actually, it’s not troops Emmanuel Macron was talking about but substantial reinforcements. On March 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he had information that “the UK, France, and a number of other countries” had special forces on the ground in Syria. Perhaps not in Manbij, but those commandos are somewhere in the country. If the US pulls out and Turkey moves in, the French military presence could help avoid a clash and could transform the Turkish advance on Manbij into a NATO operation. That would hinder any coordination of efforts with Russia. Ankara will not be able to establish a de-escalation zone in accordance with the agreements reached under the Astana process.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is to visit Ankara in early April. The meeting will be followed by a Russia-Turkey-Iran summit. A new actor in Syria will hardly promote that peace process. France has lessons to learn from history — it’s very easy to get in but it’s a tall order to get out. Suffice it to recall the 1962 conflict in Algiers or the Vietnam war.