The Trump administration is likely to increase the number of its military force in Syria. According to reports appearing in the Western media, induction of fresh troops will take the number of deployed troops to 1,000. In addition to it, the US is also going to station 2,500 troops in Kuwait, likely to be deployed in Syria if and when needed. Recent comments from the US officials suggest that it is contemplating a deployment in Syria that extends far beyond the defeat of IS and includes a long-term presence to ward off Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, from having strong establishment. In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, Joseph Votel, who leads the US CENTCOM commander, said additional forces may be needed in the future to help with “stability and other aspects of the operations.”
There are multiple “other aspects” involved that necessitate deployment of fresh troops. The US has already demanded that Iran’s own and Iran-backed forces be removed from the Syrian territory in order to achieve a “political solution” of the crisis. While it is interesting to see the US demanding the exit of a force that has duly resisted and defeated IS, the demand stems actually from the fear, which both the US and Israel share, of Iran establishing permanent or long term military presence in Syria and thus use the territory to launch offensive against Israel by opening a new front in the Golan heights. Hence, deployment of US forces to thwart what it perceives to be a part of Iran’s “regional ambitions.”
In order to further decrease Iran’s role in Syria, the US plan for Syria also includes deployment of troops by Saudi Arabi, UAE and Jordan, countries which have all but lost any role in the on-going war due to the extremely dilapidated situation their proxy militias have been put into due to successful Russian and Syrian operations.
Another “factor” that is necessitating this deployment is the obvious imperative of taking Raqqa. While the implicit purpose of this deployment is to help the US allied forces, mainly the Kurds, to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria, it is also expected to serve the purpose of shielding Kurds against a Turkish onslaught. Seeing from another angel, this deployment is an acknowledgement of the US multiple failures in keeping its allies, Turks and Kurds, united in the on-going conflict.
That is to say, with Turkey and the Kurds at each other’s throats, there could not be any other viable plan for liberating Raqqa than deployment of additional forces for this purpose and thus protect and maintain the delicate balance of power, which if the US fails to maintain, could imperil its own position. This is what the US high-officials have been stating in policy-making circles.
So volatile is the situation in northern Syria that US forces are currently deployed in the town of Manbij, in order to separate Turkish and pro-Kurdish forces, while Russian and Syrian government troops are deployed nearby. US Senator John McCain did warn during a recent hearing ith Votel that American officials had not absorbed the depth of Turkish objections to the role of the YPG in the anti-ISIS campaign, saying, “I think there’s a possibility of an impending conflict between Turkey and the Kurds” and that must be prevented. The only logical way of doing this is to allow the US forces to create buffers between these two forces’ areas of operation in Manjib and elsewhere, including Raqqa.
Apart from preventing a direct clash between Turks and Kurds, an indirect purpose is also to prevent Syria and its allies, and even Turkey, from capturing Raqqa, or parts of it, on their own and thus prevent the US and its allies from having any say in deciding the future of Syria.
As it stands, Turkish officials have floated the possibility of using a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel force to take the city, as was the case in the campaign to reclaim the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, near Aleppo. Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed two weeks ago that his own Iranian and Russian-backed forces are approaching the ISIS stronghold.
For Washington, none of those options look palatable; an American-backed campaign, both on ground and by air, to capture Raqqa presents itself as the last option. Hence, the Trump administration’s decision to lift the Obama administration’s imposed cap of 500 troops in Syria, signalling a long-term military presence.
What is the plan?
Here a question also rises about the nature and the extent of objectives the US is pursuing in Syria. Clearly, there are no “short term” objectives and corollary to this is the fact there is no short term presence either.
Deployment of forces in Syria means that the US is certainly not looking at restroing Syria to its pre-war political situation. While the question of removing Assad from power doesn’t seem to be on the cards, what is very much on the cards is a division of Syria into zones and thus render Assad as the president in name only.
The plan, as some reports of the western media have suggested, should be the “creation of several autonomous zones within an otherwise still-centralized state.” These zones, according to this plan, will directly engage with, and be dependent upon, the international community for all types of “aid”, leaving potentially nothing in Assad’s hands and instead forcing him into quitting his role.
The plan also places the onus of responsibility of maintaining peace and conducting terror operations in Syria on the US/NATO forces which, by any means, have no legitimate and justifiable presence in Syria in the first place. Accordingly, Russia and Syrian forces are reduced to playing a second fiddle to the US and Iranian forces are completely removed from the Syrian territory.
The plan, in simple words, is to pave the way for a deep entrenchment of the US forces in Syria. The creation of “zones” in Syria thus makes perfect sense when seen against this background.
It only then that the US can reverse the setbacks it had to suffer in Syria during the Obama administration. It is only then that the US can prevent Russia and Iran from having an overwhelming presence and thus stabilize Syria under President Assad. On the contrary, creation of long-term “zones” in Syria means Iran will always remain vulnerable to its Arab rivals’ plans of defeating and destabilizing the Islamic Republic and establish their own hegemony fully backed by the US and Israel.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.