Egyptian soldiers train in the Suez area in 2016. Photo: Mohamed el-Shahed | AFP
If previous attempts to have Arab armies bolster the security of other regional countries are anything to go by, then the current plan the Trump administration is reportedly floating — to replace its troop presence in northeast Syria with Arab ground forces — is unlikely to see the light of day for a variety of reasons.
Shortly after it destroyed three Syrian regime sites with cruise missiles over the weekend, in response to the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, the Trump administration has reiterated its intention to bring US troops “home as quickly as possible”. This directly contradicted French President Emmanuel Macron's claim that he had convinced Washington to keep its troops in Syria “for the long-term” after President Trump expressed in late March, his desire to withdraw once the Islamic State (ISIS) group is completely destroyed.
Perhaps cognizant that withdrawing US troops could potentially endanger its Syrian Kurdish allies, the administration is reportedly contemplating a plan to fill any potential vacuum caused by a withdrawal with a follow-up deployment of troops from allied Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. According to The Wall Street Journal, which reported this, Trump's new national security advisor John Bolton has already consulted Egypt's intelligence chief General Abbas Kamel on this proposal.
Aside from putting their own boots on the ground in Syria the Trump administration also wants Arab countries to contribute billions of dollars to help rebuild these parts of war-torn Syria. Countries named in the Journal report were Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Egypt is the only one of these countries with a large standing army, which is likely why Bolton has reportedly consulted them about this directly. If this plan is ever implemented Egypt will therefore most likely send the manpower while the Gulf monarchies foot the bills.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has expressed it was not a new idea for the Kingdom’s forces to be deployed along with other Arab forces in Syria. “We have been in talks with the United States since the onset of the crisis. Concerning sending forces to Syria, we gave the Obama administration a suggestion that if the United States sends forces, then the KSA will also contemplate sending troops within that coalition alongside other countries,” Jubeir said during a joint press conference with the UN secretary general on Tuesday. He added that “these things are still under discussion.”
Establishing such a cooperative economic and security arrangement is, of course, much easier said than done, as a not so dissimilar plan from the early 1990s aptly demonstrates. The so-called Damascus Declaration, formulated in March 1991 immediately after Iraq was forced out of Kuwait by the US-led coalition in that year's Persian Gulf War, envisioned Egypt and Syria retaining a large troop presence in the Persian Gulf region to protect them against Saddam Hussein if he attempted to re-invade Kuwait or attack that region. Together Cairo and Damascus deployed approximately 70,000 troops in support of the coalition against Iraq.
In return for their manpower and protection Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states would provide billions in aid to both Egypt and Syria, essentially establishing a GCC+2. This was not to be, even though talks about it went on until as late as December 1995. US troops remained stationed in Saudi Arabia until Iraq’s Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein was ultimately ousted in 2003.
While a GCC+2 never came to be it is nevertheless worth re-examining that proposal since it shone a light on the salient fact that while the Gulf states are very wealthy and possess a huge amount of hi-tech weaponry they lack, even in per-capita terms, sizeable standing armies and strong logistical backbones. This was evidently demonstrated again back in early 2015 when Saudi Arabia urged Pakistan to contribute ground forces for the war in Yemen it had just launched – which the parliament in Islamabad, much to Riyadh's consternation, voted against doing.
Just how necessary an Arab troop deployment is for Syrian Kurdistan's (Rojava) protection is also questionable. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battle-hardened from war against ISIS and is a formidable fighting-force. A deployment of even a few thousand Egyptian troops is unlikely to significantly bolster the SDF's capabilities to physically defend the region – unless these troops come in with armoured units ,which is extremely unlikely, and are capable of lending substantial air support to the SDF, which is also highly unlikely. The physical presence of Egyptian troops on the ground in Rojava, however, would constitute a much less contentious foreign presence in northeast Syria to Damascus then the current American-led one, since Cairo-Damascus relations are quite cordial and Egypt has very good relations with Russia.
Presently the US has approximately 2,000 troops, including a number of Special Forces, based in Rojava. Their presence, along with that of US and coalition warplanes in the skies above Syria, is an effective deterrent against any state or non-state actor which seeks to attack or subdue the SDF in Rojava and the Syrian Arab territories they have captured from ISIS. A withdrawal of US troops might not prove overly catastrophic for the SDF if Washington signals it is ready to deploy air power in their defense. US airstrikes, carried out in defense of the SDF in Deir ez-Zor, on February 7 swiftly obliterated an unspecified number of Syrian pro-regime paramilitaries, possibly as many as 300, and Russian contractors.
US warplanes carrying out such airstrikes take off from aircraft carrier and regional bases, not Syrian ones, meaning that even if the US has no ground presence in Syria it may well maintain communications with SDF forces and provide air cover for them in the future if they face a threat.
Ultimately if the United States pulls all of its troops out of Syria in the foreseeable future there is little reason at this time, and with the unrealized GCC+2 precedent, to believe that any foreign Arab troops will move in and take their place.