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What does the US withdrawal from Syria mean?

President Donald Trump gives his first State of the Union address to Congress and the country in Washington, United States on 30 January, 2018 [Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump’s statements that the countries of the region should “step up” and “pay for what’s happening” with regards to the costs of fighting Daesh, as well as saying that Saudi Arabia should pay $4 billion in return for US troops remaining in eastern Syria, have prompted speculation about the participation of Arab forces in Syria instead of the Americans. Trump first announced that his troops must be withdrawn, before saying that they will be there for no more than six more months.

CIA Director Michael Pompeo [Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia]

America’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was sent to Saudi Arabia to discuss this issue, and Pompeo also called his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shukri, about it. Riyadh responded by saying that it was ready to send Arab troops to Syria as part of the international coalition. Foreign Minister Adil Al-Jubeir said repeatedly that his country had offered to send Saudi troops to Syria twice during President Obama’s term in office and is now repeating the same offer. “We are still considering the mechanism to send these forces to Syria with cover from the international coalition,” he explained. Shukri said simply that his country was studying the issue.

The idea of forming a joint Arab force goes back decades within the Arab League, but ongoing political differences meant that it went no further. There were so-called Arab Forces in Lebanon in 1976, but most of them were Syrians aiming to end the Lebanese civil war; they stayed there until they were removed by mass protests following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. In the three decades of their presence in Lebanon, they went from maintaining the peace in the context of carrying out the Arab League’s decisions, to something resembling occupation forces whose function was to destroy the Lebanese and Palestinian leaderships in the country. The forces fought against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and then with the Amal movement and Hezbollah before allying with them. This was followed by a war with Lebanese Christians represented by the Kataeb Forces, and then with the movement of the current Lebanese President, Michel Aoun. These “Arab Forces” left the country exhausted, lacking any legal or political legitimacy that would justify the Arab League making any other decisions to send joint Arab forces into any other Arab state, regardless of who they or the circumstances were.

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Hence, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt considered going to the Arab League to obtain a mandate to send Arab troops to Syria, because they know the political divisions within the supposed umbrella body. They also have to consider the political consequences of sending such forces anywhere, based on the Lebanon experience.

Today, Syria is crowded with foreign troops from almost all of the neighbouring countries, as well as soldiers from the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Turkey has a strong military presence in the north, in the wake of Operation Euphrates Shield and the last battle in Afrin. The latter allowed it to take control of the city after expelling the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which have deep ties to the PKK, which is engaged in a fierce conflict with the Turkish government in Turkey itself, Iraq and now Syria. Moreover, Iraq and Jordan often carry out cross-border military operations to ensure the security of the border, which is no longer controlled by the Syrian regime. France recently announced the deployment of troops to Syria via Iraq, to act as an ally of US forces stationed in eastern Syria, especially after the Americans took control of Al-Raqqa and expelled Daesh from the city.

The United States has a large military presence in Syria, with more than 2,000 troops in the east controlling the areas that were once run by Daesh. In spite of the controversy of Trump’s statement about the withdrawal of his troops, and in the wake of the US-UK-France tripartite strike on facilities belonging to the Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons in besieged Duma, the US President decided to keep them there. His call for regional and Gulf States to bear the cost was backed by the strategic carrot that this would help to counter Iran’s presence and prevent the spread of Tehran’s influence.

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Iran’s military presence includes perhaps thousands of “consultants” as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose commander, Qasem Soleimani, took part in various battles in the north of Syria. Moreover, Tehran has recruited Afghan and Pakistani Shia mercenaries who have taken refuge in Iran. They are used by the Zainabion and Fatimiyun militias, which are Shia groups that have proven to be effective in Syria because their cost to Iran and the Syrian regime is very low. Although thousands have been killed, they are not represented by any relatives, nor is anyone defending their rights. Their deaths do not place any pressure on Tehran or Damascus as they fight for the money, motivated by a sectarian doctrine fuelled by Shia ideology controlled by Iran as represented by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Finally, Iraq also maintains irregular forces in Syria, represented by sectarian militias, an extension of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, such as the Nujba movement. Although the Iraqi government denies responsibility for the presence of these militias in Syria to support the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, it should not be forgotten that Baghdad took a supportive position towards the Syrian President due to Iranian influence and sectarian considerations. Moreover, the People’s Mobilisation Forces are represented in the Iraqi government and are supported and financed officially; it is hard to believe that the Iraqi militias in Syria have no official support, even if it is not overt.

We can, therefore, say that the deployment of more troops in Syrian would further complicate matters on both a military and political level. This is especially true since such deployment would not be within the context of a political agreement or a UN framework. That would make a “joint Arab force” open to clashes within the fluid military boundaries in the Syrian war and the deep political divisions in the country.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 17 may 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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