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US mulls Arab military support in Syria

Wesley Dockery
April 17, 2018

With the "Islamic State" largely defeated, the US has reportedly been looking to form an Arab force to secure northeast Syria. Experts warn the military presence could further complicate an already complex civil war.

US troops in Syria
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/S. George

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal outlined the Trump administration's wish to form an Arab military force in Syria to replace US troops there. Officials told the newspaper that John Bolton, Donald Trump's national security adviser, recently called Abbas Kamel, Egypt's chief of intelligence and a major figure in President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government, to seek military and financial support for the initiative.

Officials also told the Journal that Gulf Arab states would join in the efforts. "Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all been approached with respect to financial support and more broadly to contribute," one administration official said. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are funding Syrian fighters who are supported by the US government.

Read more: Iran and North Korea: The return of John Bolton's 'axis of evil'?

The goal of the force would be to secure and protect the area from such terror organizations as the "Islamic State", while also serving one of Trump's main campaign promises of having other countries share foreign policy burdens with the US. The initiative could also benefit US business interests in Syria and the wider region. Private military contractors have expressed interest in getting the plan off the ground.

Disturbing the peace?   

Bente Scheller, the head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beirut, told DW that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are likely to be skeptical about establishing such a military force. "Neither of those countries have sent many troops abroad in the last decade, and I think they both have little interest in doing so," she said. Scheller added that any force would need the consent of Syrian President Bashar Assad to even be allowed in the country.

Syrian YPG fighters
Scheller believes Kurds in Syria would have 'no interest' in Arab troops coming to the regionImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Souleiman

Moreover, the presence of this Arab force could disturb the Kurds, who administer some regions. "Kurdish forces and civilians certainly have no interest in having any Arab troops coming to the areas they control," Scheller said. She also noted that even Arab populations in northeastern Syria would not be likely to trust a military occupation force.

Conflicting interests

Other actors in the region, including Turkey, may be more open to the proposal. Officials in Ankara have long been opposed to an autonomous Kurdish state, and deploying an international Arab force might "water down" Kurdish power, Scheller said.

Russia and Iran, however, are less likely to support a new US-allied military presence in the region. Iran — a country that has used militias to expand its influence in in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — would be particularly dubious of an Arab force led by predominantly Sunni Muslim countries that includes its archrival, Saudi Arabia.

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war

"This is one of the many policy propositions that have been suggested before, but there are many obstacles that may prevent it from coming into reality, with the main one being the absence of any clear American vision in Syria," Hassan Mneimneh, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told DW. "Adding such an ambiguous element to the already complex Syrian war will just make things worse."

Ultimately, Scheller said, forming such a force in Syria would risk bringing in other outside parties whose interests differ from Washington's. "It is a very shortsighted policy in all regards." she said. "It is politically unlikely that any actor on the ground would be fond of this, and it's unlikely the US would have any real control over countries involved in this force."

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