The US administration wants to pull its boots off the ground in Syria. Or, to be more precise, it wants to draw down its regular military. Finding a way to get US soldiers out of conflicts in faraway countries of little interest to the American people is always a feather in the cap of a chief executive. On March 29, President Trump said he planned to get the troops out "very soon." But it needs to be clear that the withdrawal is in no way a defeat or concession made to anybody. A bit of “ingenuity” helps to solve that problem.
According to a WSJ report, the idea is to replace the US military personnel with a multinational force from Arab countries and to thus “stabilize” northeastern Syria. Egypt, which has its army units fighting terrorists in the Sinai, has already been approached on the matter. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar have been asked to send forces and allocate funds to rebuild the Syrian territory currently under American control. By deploying a contingent consisting of troops from its regional neighbors, this would protect the area after America welcomes its soldiers back home. Of course, the force will also help oppose Iran. The members of the new corps will be thrown together with Israel, which has already started its own campaign to drive out the Iranian forces. The situation is fraught with the risk of escalation, even without assembling this new host.
The idea of creating an Arab force in Syria has popped up from time to time ever since Russia sent its air forces to Syria in 2015. The announcement of the formation of a Muslim NATO made a splash in early 2017, but was soon forgotten. There have been other attempts to create an anti-Iran alliance. But it never came to fruition, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bogged down in the Yemeni conflict, opposing Qatar, which has limited military capabilities and is reluctant to confront Iran.
How will this end?
First of all, the US cannot simply pull out, leaving Syria with other actors, such as Iran, to fill the void. President Trump’s numerous opponents would raise a hue and cry over that. True, the president’s approval ratings will go up, but in reality the military presence on the ground will remain, only with American private military contractors replacing the regular troops. They have already expressed an interest in getting that plan off the ground.
The media have reported the presence of about 2,000 regular special ops troops in Syria, but the story about the private military companies operating there, as well as in Iraq, broke just a few days ago. Roughly half of the approximately 5,500 contractor personnel there are not even US citizens. So a withdrawal will not end that military presence, which entails boots on the ground involved in hush-hush, “far from the media” activities. Using private warriors will solve political problems but without actually changing anything.
The oil-rich Persian Gulf countries may send just token forces of their own or no forces at all, while providing funds to the US-linked private security contractors that are carrying out combat missions. Another option is to create a training hub for the SDF or other forces in eastern Syria. Although the Arab states that are officially taking part will have a presence there, they will not actually be doing any fighting.
Second, the US Air Force will be in standby mode, ready to intervene if the Arab forces or the contractors need help. Third, the Kurds are the backbone of the US-led SDF. There’s no way to know for sure if they will be able to find a common language with the Saudi-led military occupation force. There’s also a chance the local Arabs might not be happy to see more foreigners coming in to control their land, even if those strangers are Sunni Arabs. With the Persian Gulf military moving in to replace the American troops, Syria would risk seeing the same fate as Yemen. And if the new Arab force was not up to the task, the US would have to re-deploy its forces, and that would be a political setback that Trump’s ill-wishers would waste no time taking advantage of.
Turkey’s reaction is not yet known but it could welcome the development, because an international force might diminish the role of the Kurds. But Ankara might not follow US orders, as potential participants have their own goals to pursue.
Fourth, the US regular military withdrawal will inevitably spur Israel to become vastly more involved. How will public opinion in Sunni Muslim countries view an Arab force that joins efforts with Israel, even if the target is Shia Iran? The parties may pretend to operate separately, but one cannot fight a common enemy without some coordination of activities, thus resulting in the emergence of a Sunni Arab alliance led by Israel and Saudi Arabia. In any event, an Israeli-Arab thaw is already taking place, with Iran in its crosshairs.
A US withdrawal would be presented as a fulfillment of President Trump’s pledge to end US involvement in foreign conflicts that don’t directly threaten America’s security. But in reality, nothing will change. Private contractors will replace the regular military. More Arab actors will be involved, one way or another, in the conflict. Israel will have a bigger role to play. The efforts to isolate northwestern Syria will continue, unless the US and its Arab allies join the Astana process with the goal of seriously discussing the prospect of establishing a de-escalation zone in the SDF-controlled chunk of Syria, recognizing it as part of a unified country. At first glance, this would seem to be a long shot, but you never know. No government in the world has openly called for the partition of Syria.