The administration of US President Donald Trump is seeking to replace US troops in Syria with Arab fighters. The Wall Street Journal reported, citing officials in the Trump administration, that John Bolton, his new national security adviser, has called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief. The two discussed Egypt’s possible participation in Syria. This comes after Washington asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for contribution to help restore northern Syria after the defeat of Daesh. According to President Trump, the administration has asked its partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing greater amounts of money.
Sputnik: What are your thoughts on the likelihood of Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in upholding the US proposal to contribute troops and financial assistance to Syria?
Dr Serkan Yolacan: Frankly, I find it quite unlikely. Saudi and Emirati forces are still actively fighting in Yemen and their entrenchment keeps training their resources. When you look at Egypt, it’s consumed with, to a certain extent, an armed conflict as it struggles to cope with the Islamic State’s insurgency in Sinai; and Qatar’s military has limited experience and political rifts with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt would certainly prevent active military cooperation, at least between their forces.
Sputnik: If Trump were be able to strike a deal with any of these countries, which would be the most likely? And, once again, do you think that this would all result in a new wave of Sunni-Shiite conflict in Syria?
Dr Serkan Yolacan: It is possible. I think the Saudis are likely to send, Saudi Arabia has about 300,000 troops that can act on their own or dispatch troops as part of the Peninsula Shield Force, which is the military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), something they did in, for example, suppressing the uprisings in Bahrain in 2011. I find it quite unlikely, but the Saudis may also put in in as part of the Islamic Military Alliance, which is a Saudi-led coalition against ISIS to contribute with some truce. But no matter which option the Saudis use, it is not clear to me that such a force would have the military capabilities or experience to act on a par with other forces on the ground, such as Iran’s battle-hardened militia forces in Syria and Iraq.
Sputnik: Can you comment on how you see Iran’s role in Syria? How long do you expect there to be an Iranian presence in Syria post the defeat of ISIS?
Dr Serkan Yolacan: Syria has many fronts with many actors and… Just let me go back to the initial point that I made with the political rifts among Gulf states and a lack of experience make it a very risky endeavor on their part, potentially bringing an Arab coalition up against not only Iran, but also Russia and Turkey at a time when these three powers have been playing along with one another in Syria. Rouhani, Erdogan and Putin have ongoing dialogue and the Astana process brings the three states around the same table regularly, I must say. So these actors are basically learning how to pursue different agendas without stepping on each other’s toes. When we talk about Iran’s influence, we need to also consider Russia as a side more and more. Such communication and coordination, that we see in the Astana process for example, is lacking in the southern tier of the Middle East, among the Arab states. I mean Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to consolidate, as we could see from his recent trip to the US. A US backed southern front against this northern tier, but we are yet to see the results of it, so I don’t anticipate Iran to be pulling out of the region any time soon.
Sputnik: As far as the US, I mean what are the possibilities? We’ve heard Trump speak about his desire to bring the US troops home and then we’ve seen members of his cabinet saying absolutely the opposite, basically on the same day. But then he’s repeated that he still does have a plan to withdraw from Syria. What are your thoughts on the possibilities of withdrawal and likewise the possibility of some kind of Arab forces replacing the US troops?
Dr Serkan Yolacan: With Trump in power it is hard to anticipate, really, but I see unlikely because of two outstanding issues: one is Israel’s security, second, the Syrian Kurds. Let me elaborate very quickly: Israel is not going to trust an Arab coalition to be doing the job that the US has been doing for them. Yes, of course, for the US to defeat of ISIS may be a victory, but that means very little for Israel and its allies in the region, because basically Iran still maintains its forces in Iraq, Syria and, to certain extent,Lebanon. So I expect Israel to be to continue to lobby US to remain in Syria and that would be huge pulling effect for the US. The second issue is, of course, the future of Syrian Kurds. US patronage of Kurds against both the Syrian regime and the Turks cannot be easily replaced by an Arab coalition simply because they don’t have the cachet that the US have as a global power, so patronage from an Arab coalition would mean very little for the Kurds and it’s not even clear that they would accept such a patronage in the first place. And we all know that the Kurdish issue such is such a thorny domain that involves a range of actors from within Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. So if not for anyone else, the US troops will have to stay, in my opinion, for Israel and the Kurds.
Sputnik: Speaking of Israel, they are also in some sort of a difficult position between Russia and the US, not wanting to ruin relations on either side. Do you think that, with that in mind, there is any chance that Israel, if were not able to lobby the US to remain, could take a more active role?
Dr Serkan Yolacan: Yes, I think the scenario in which the US troops are completely withdrawn from Syria is a scary one indeed for Israel, because then they cannot rely on this US-backed Gulf coalition only because this southern front will be very weak vis-à-vis, the northern tier, what I call a northern tier of Russia, Iran and Turkey, because with the US troops out of the way the northern tier will certainly have the upper hand in the Syrian crisis.