The Trump administration is reportedly looking to assemble an Arab force in Syria that would replace US troops and help bring stability to the war-torn nation after the eradication of the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
US media have been quoting administration officials as saying that the mission is for key Arab countries to take greater responsibility for restoring the eastern part of Syria where thousands of IS fighters are believed to remain confined to the Middle Euphrates River Valley along the Syria-Iraq border.
However, there is apparently another side to the unfolding story. A brash and even bellicose US President Donald Trump has not minced his words in declaring that his focus on Syria is part of a wider strategy to stop and contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
“We don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean,” Trump told a joint press conference with his visiting French counterpart Emmanuel Macron last week.
Unsurprisingly, questions have been raised on whether Trump has a serious strategy in Syria and if it is really about containing Iran. A closer look suggests that Trump’s idea to invite Arab forces to Syria does not make sense and might conceal a hidden agenda.
In theory, Trump wants to block Iran from building a strong military and security presence in Syria in order to stop Tehran from establishing regional influence through an array of Shia proxies. He wants to prevent Iran from establishing an axis with Tehran at the centre that would extend across much of the Middle East to the Mediterranean.
Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia may share the objective of putting Iran on notice, but their roads also diverge along the way on how to achieve the goal.
In the story told by the US media, Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton has been in contact with top officials in key Arab countries to reportedly probe whether they would help stabilise the region by contributing large amounts of money to US-led efforts in Syria.
Trump has repeatedly warned that American forces will soon withdraw from Syria. In doing so, he has been sending mixed messages to American strategists and to Washington’s allies about US future commitments in Syria.
In an attempt to clear the confusion, US Defence Secretary James Mattis told senators on 26 April that the US military was not preparing to withdraw from Syria and that the presence of American troops was vital for continued anti-IS operations.
Speaking in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Mattis said that even after the terrorist group was entirely destroyed the US must be careful about full withdrawal.
There are currently around 2,000 American soldiers in Syria. Washington began sending troops to Syria in late 2015 with a small contingent of Special Operations Forces claiming to help a Syrian rebel alliance and Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.
Subsequently, the number of American troops has grown and extended the role of the contingent of Special Operations Forces beyond training, equipping and advising the rebels to actual fighting.
Aside from the mixed messages over Syria, it is clear that the US is expanding its network of military bases in the war-torn country, sending the message that US troops are there to stay.
There are multiple reasons why Washington might display a fluttering American flag above outposts in eastern Syria, as the country is increasingly becoming a playground for rival international and regional powers.
Yet, one aspect of US intentions remains crystal clear: to stop Iran from dominating the Middle East through a dual strategy of constraining its regional influence and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal with the world’s major powers.
In order not to “give Iran open season to the Mediterranean” as Trump has stipulated, he needs to block Iran from tightening its control over a vast stretch of the Iraqi-Syrian border and building a land corridor to link the area with Iran.
The dash for the border, however, has reinforced speculation about the so-called “Shia Crescent,” a geopolitical concept which refers to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, which have Shia-majority populations, and Syria, which is ruled by a strong Alawite Shia minority.
The concept signals a tectonic shift in the regional order towards not only a land connection between Iran and the Shia communities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but also, and more importantly, paves the way towards a new regional system under Iran’s aegis.
Tehran has concluded bilateral agreements with Baghdad and Damascus to build a 1,700 km motorway linking the three countries. The project is expected to take two years to complete.
A new railway line is also under review. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opened a new railway on 24 April linking the key Iranian western city of Kermanshah to the national railway network.
Iran plans to stretch the new line to Khosravi on the border with Iraq.
There are a lot of problems with Trump’s Syrian policy, not least his suggestion that Arab heavyweights band their troops together and form an “Arab force” to counter Iran’s influence in Syria.
Some Arabs have dismissed the Trump plans as bluffing.
While the Arabs may agree with Trump about Iran’s threat to the region, they diverge on the ways and means to confront it. One main concern is that the consequences of deploying Arab troops in Syria could further destabilise the country and even the entire region.
Arab governments may have refrained from reacting publicly to Trump’s repeated call for the Arab countries to form an Arab military force, but their willingness to support Trump’s drive in Syria is far from clear.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia has acted by its usual playbook of diplomatic subtlety to indicate that it intends to turn down Trump’s proposal. A statement by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir following Trump’s comments during a joint press conference with Macron suggested that it was Qatar that should send its military forces to Syria.
Al-Jubeir, who also suggested that Qatar pay for the US military forces in Syria, was alluding to the presence of US bases in the energy-rich Gulf emirate and its dependence on American protection.
His statement also reflects the priority Saudi Arabia gives to its dispute with Qatar, which the kingdom along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates accuses of supporting terrorism and destabilising the region.
By any account, the initial indications suggest that Trump’s new approach in Syria will be a flop.
Trump’s policy in Syria overall is becoming an especially vexing problem for Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, which do not want to risk their own safety for the sake of the uncertain strategy of a US president who only cares about who pays what for the US military presence.
If Trump wants to deter Iran from completing a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut, or to counter its plans to create a “Shia Crescent,” a goal shared by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab governments, then he needs to take account of their security and stability needs.
Trump’s threat to Iran has touched off strong rhetoric from Iranian leaders and Tehran’s regional proxies, which have intensified the drumbeats and warned that attempts to isolate Iran will not remain without response.
Iran is consolidating its presence in many parts of Syria, while taking advantage of the chaos to gain more control of the region. It has done this by supporting its proxies in the shape of the Lebanese Hizbullah group and Iraqi Shia militias that have established numerous bases on the border with Syria.
Herein lies the danger of having Arab troops move into eastern Syria, where they will be in direct confrontation with a constellation of Iranian and proxy forces spanning from Iran’s border with Iraq all the way to Lebanon.
The Arabs cannot afford to lose sight of the Iranian danger, but to address it they will need to forge a strategy based on their own vision of the Iranian threats and away from Trump’s misconceptions and Israel’s “red lines” in Syria.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram weekly