Over the last few months, President Donald Trump has made announcements that regional states should bear more of the burden of ridding Syria of the so-called Islamic State and that Saudi Arabia should pay $4 billion to keep American troops posted there. He also sent his newly confirmed secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Saudi Arabia to discuss the prospects of participating in Syria and personally urged Egypt to do the same. But despite positive responses by the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers, Adel al-Jubeir and Sameh Shoukry, respectively, the prospects for an Arab force stationed in Syria seem to be remote, at least for the time being.
A previous example of Arab forces deployed to an Arab country suffering from civil war is when the Syrian army entered Lebanon in 1976 under the auspices of the League of Arab States; it left in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. While there, Syrian troops fought with all participants in Lebanon’s civil war: the Palestinians, Shia and Christian militias, and soldiers loyal to the former commander of the Lebanese army, current President Michel Aoun. Syria’s army evolved into an unpopular occupation force that interfered in Lebanon’s domestic affairs and intimidated Lebanese politicians. Such a history became a warning sign for Arab interventions in the affairs of other countries.
Given the number of countries that have deployed armed forces in Syria, one can only see dim prospects for the involvement of Arab troops. Turkey has forces in the north of the country to fight Kurdish aspirants for self-rule, themselves supported by 2,000 American troops that have recently been joined by French soldiers. Russia also has ground, air, and naval forces that have been pivotal for regime military successes since the beginning of 2016. Iran deploys soldiers from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Additionally, engaging Arab troops in Syria is a recipe for military clashes as borders between fighting formations constantly change and divisions increase in the absence of a political solution or compromise.
Several other factors impede the deployment of Arab forces in Syria. Politically, it is difficult to secure UN Security Council approval for what would amount to a peacekeeping mission, given Russia’s opposition and the Syrian regime’s and Iran’s plans for a complete military victory on the ground. Sending Arab troops would most likely prevent such a victory since the deployment would be accompanied by a political solution—including a transition from authoritarian rule, and this would be opposed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
The details of sending an Arab force to Syria may also contain some prohibitive factors. While the deployment would require a political solution, there are differences between Saudi and Egyptian understandings of conditions and developments in Syria. For years, the kingdom has supported a political and military opposition that wants to change the regime, while Egypt still maintains diplomatic relations with Syria and considers Assad’s regime to be legitimate. Egypt also supports the Syrian army in its purported “war on terror.” This pivotal Saudi-Egyptian schism precludes the needed cooperation on deployment.
Another important impediment is the Saudi demand that the engagement of Arab troops take place under the leadership of American forces in Syria—the same forces that President Trump wishes to withdraw. Arab troops would want to come to Syria merely as auxiliary forces and not as an alternative to American troops. So far, neither the American administration nor the Arab allies have been able to find a satisfactory explanation or resolution for this dilemma.
There also does not seem to be any clarity regarding Turkey’s role in possible scenarios. It has had troops in Syria in coordination with Russia and Iran since the three agreed to the so-called “de-escalation zones” in Astana and guaranteed their safety. If Saudi and Egyptian troops were deployed in Syria, therefore, Turkey may find itself closer to the Russian and Iranian positions. It has tense relations with Saudi Arabia because Ankara stood by Doha in the ongoing GCC crisis; and Turkey’s relations with Egypt became frayed after the July 2013 military coup by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi against then President Mohammed Morsi. It is noteworthy here also to point to the tension in Turkish-American relations because of American support for Kurdish militias in Syria.
Such complicated political and military conditions make the idea of an Arab troop deployment in Syria unworkable, if not outright impossible. While Saudi Arabia and Egypt may want to help President Trump and serve their strategic interests, their involvement on the ground in Syria may be too costly. It is thus easy to surmise that the idea may not be more than a mere suggestion that cannot be implemented in Syria’s quicksand, especially at a time the American president is busy fending off serious investigations into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.