In his book The End of Iraq, Peter Galbraith writes that Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion, was absolutely convinced of the need to disband the Kurdish military force known as the peshmerga. Then as now they were the only stalwart American military ally in Iraq, but Bremer favored a national army.
In April 2004, Bremer dispatched a RAND consultant to liaise with the Kurdish intelligence chief and press the point. They spent days together negotiating and at last a deal was struck. The peshmerga would be dissolved. In their place, it was agreed, the Kurds would create three new military formations: mountain rangers, a rapid reaction force, and a counterterrorism strike force.
But just as the man from RAND was about to board his helicopter to take him back to Baghdad, Galbraith writes, “he observed how important it was that the Kurds, masters of Iraq’s largest militia, were willing to give it up for the sake of national unity. Some doubt may have crept into his mind as he then asked for the Kurdish translation of mountain rangers. “Peshmerga” was the reply. Had he asked, he would have discovered that “rapid reaction force” and “counterterrorism strike force” are also rendered into Kurdish as “peshmerga.”
This anecdote crept back into mind last week when I read in The Wall Street Journal that Donald Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton and his appointed new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have alighted upon a clever way to reconcile the need to stabilize Syria after ISIS is gone with the president’s desire to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there. Namely, they would make America’s Arab allies stand up their own expeditionary army to replace the U.S.-led one east of the Euphrates River, and they’d also make the Arabs pay for everything.
It’s a strategy that could work… so long as the U.S. doesn’t withdraw from Syria and and also pays for a lot.
As Hassan Hassan and I reported last month, the previous U.S. policy for Syria, as articulated by the now-fired Rex Tillerson, was to leave some 2,000 U.S. troops there indefinitely for three reasons: to ensure that ISIS (which is down but not yet out) stays defeated once it’s driven from every last population center; to keep Iranian hegemony at bay and block the designs of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for a Khomeinist “land-bridge” stretching to the Mediterranean; and to prevent Bashar al-Assad from reaping the rewards of a war against jihadism which his incompetence and duplicity made necessary in the first place.
Trump then appeared to reverse this policy in an off-the-cuff remark made in Ohio when he suggested that all the GIs in Syria would be coming home “soon.” Except that, according to U.S. officials, the reporting on this rhetorical volte-face got ahead of the planning inside the White House. Trump hasn’t formally made up his mind on what the U.S. long game in Syria is going to be. He still wants out, but his generals want in, and if the limited airstrikes on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities this month prove anything, it’s that four-stars can still persuade a reality star out of his gut instincts.
Rather, the president has tasked his national security team with tweaking or revising the Tillerson strategy so that it satisfies four main conditions. These are as follows:
- The U.S. should not be an occupying power involved in nation-building, which has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan;
- The U.S. should not remain indefinitely as some auxiliary fire brigade putting out Islamist blazes caused by dysfunctional regional governments; rather it should get something that serves the national interest in return for its investment;
- The U.S. taxpayer should not be saddled with billions or trillions of dollars in Syria upkeep;
- ISIS must never again be allowed to reconstitute itself such that it poses a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.
Trump, as you might have guessed, put great emphasis on the third condition, which is why even before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, arrived in Washington last month, Trump was insisting on Riyadh’s financial contribution to this prospective new Pax ArabAmericana. The price tag was a cool $4 billion, or a fraction of what MBS claims to have recouped by cracking down on corruption in the kingdom and tossing his relatives into the Saudi Leavenworth that is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The Saudis, according to Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, are in “discussions” with the U.S. about sending troops to Syria and have been since Barack Obama was president, which is one way of saying that these discussions have formally entered into the inshallah realm of likelihood.
Moreover, Riyadh’s primary theater for waging its proxy war with Tehran is no longer Syria but Yemen. Bashar, says MBS, isn’t going anywhere. Absent U.S. military supervision, Saudi forces would be sitting ducks for IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
According to the Journal, the other prospective countries to be included in this tenuous coalition of the reluctant are Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Bolton apparently phoned Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel to sound him out on the idea, perhaps forgetting that the Sisi regime has not-so-quietly been pro-Assad since it came to power in a 2013 coup d’etat. The Egyptians have refused to aid the Saudis directly in Yemen and are far more comfortable working with the Israelis to deal with jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, a more exigent security threat for them than anything coming out of Raqqa or Deir Ezzor.
The Qataris, whom Trump recently hailed as partners in counterterrorism after blaming them for financing and supporting terrorists (at the cajoling of the Saudis, who have blockaded and isolated Doha), are unlikely to put their soldiers in harm’s way facing Iranian troops and Iranian-backed militias.
As for the Emiratis, here Bolton might have more luck, owing to their enduring commitment to the anti-ISIS mission, but only, if like Bremer’s hapless emissary, he quietly lets them transform a sought-after U.S. policy into its opposite.
Sir John Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Iraq, was just in the UAE discussing this question with the Emiratis, who, he told me, “seem to have believed that the deal was for them to backfill liberated and pacified areas piecemeal, with the U.S. doing all the heave force stuff.”
The heavy force stuff, alas, requires providing air cover, logistics, intelligence sharing, and force protection, which assuredly means having U.S. soldiers embedded with their Arab counterparts. “So, the Arab Coalition plan still needs the 2,000 U.S. troops to stay in Syria, along with the U.S. Air Force,” Jenkins said. “Does Trump know?”
Maybe Bolton and Pompeo’s bright idea is that he doesn’t necessarily have to, or can pretend not to.
Syria, as with all other foreign policy transacted by this administration, is a shake-down. As Arab armies pour into Syria and open their checkbooks, no doubt to much televised pomp and triumphalism, Trump can simply claim that he’s lowered America’s liability in the forever war and that by hanging around in Syria we’ve more or less gotten out.