If the US Wants an Arab Force in Syria, It’ll Have to Step Up in Yemen

Hasan Alhasan

For a president whose foreign policy could easily be described as transactional – after all, he does tend to wave charts of foreign military sales and investments in meetings with foreign heads of state at the White House – Donald Trump has had little to say on how he intends to convince his Arab allies of his plan to replace the US’s contingent of 2,000 troops in northeast Syria with Arab forces. Besides its obvious flaws, Trump’s plan might come at a cost for the US: before they could consider diverting military resources to Syria, the US’s Gulf allies are likely to ask Trump for greater assistance in bringing the conflict in Yemen to an end.

Since early April, Trump has expressed his desire to pull out US troops from Syria, repeating the mantra that America’s allies must shoulder a greater share of the burden of securing the region. According to various press reports, his plan involves soliciting troop contributions from the US’s Arab allies to northeast Syria, where the US is actively deployed in assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. On April 16, The Wall Street Journal reported that US National Security Advisor John Bolton had been in contact with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel to explore the likelihood of an Egyptian contribution.

Trump’s plan suffers from several obvious flaws, however. To begin with, Egypt is unlikely to contribute to an Arab force, especially one whose presence would most likely be opposed by the government of Bashar Al Assad. In an interview in November 2016, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi expressed his support for “national armies” in the region, including in Syria. Notwithstanding the Muslim Brotherhood interregnum, Egypt has backed the government of Assad throughout the Syrian conflict.

This leaves Trump with his Gulf Arab allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A day after the Wall Street Journal report came out, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir renewed his country’s support for an Arab military presence in Syria, a proposal on which the kingdom, he said, is “in discussions with the US, and [has] been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.” But Al Jubeir was quick to point out that Saudi Arabia had offered to participate in a US-led coalition or military contingent, indicating that Saudi Arabia did not intend to replace, but rather supplement, US forces in Syria. To Trump’s dismay then, an Arab contribution would unlikely allow for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

Beyond the plan’s shortcomings, Gulf forces are currently tied up in the military campaign in Yemen, which tops the Gulf states’ national-security priorities. In March 2015, Iran-backed Houthi militants took over the capital city Sanaa, forcing the president, Abd Rabou Mansour Hadi, to flee into exile in Aden, which they then threatened to overrun. Answering Hadi’s plea for help, Saudi Arabia assembled a military coalition that over the past three years has sought to restore Hadi’s internationally recognized government and bring to an end Houthi control over parts of the country.

So, as the Yemeni conflict enters its fourth year, the Gulf states are likely to ask for greater US assistance in bringing the Yemeni conflict to an end before they can divert resources to Syria. Currently, US support is limited to intelligence sharing, the provision of satellite imagery and logistical support including mid-air refueling for Arab coalition jets. The Gulf states are expected to bargain for greater political cover as well as intelligence and logistical support for an impending military surge. The surge, led by former President Ali Abdulla Saleh’s nephew, Brigadier Tareq Saleh, aims to wrest control of Yemen’s strategic western coast from the Houthis. The Gulf states are also expected to seek support for tighter screening of traffic entering Yemen’s Al Hodeida and Al Saleef sea ports and Sanaa airport, as well as further assistance in interdicting Iranian weapons shipments. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe that by changing the military balance on the ground and choking the Houthis’ supply of weapons and missiles, the Houthis could be brought to the negotiating table and ultimately to a political settlement that guarantees their withdrawal and disarmament.

However, the US has so far been reluctant to fully embrace the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s strategy in Yemen. In an April 17 hearing of the senate foreign relations committee, US state department and defense department officials claimed the Houthis were no closer to meeting the demands of Yemen’s internationally recognized government today than they were three years ago, before hostilities began. Nevertheless, US officials have argued that the death of former President Saleh in December last year and the fragmentation of the General People’s Congress that he led might hasten the prospect of a negotiated settlement, one that they hope would fully integrate the Houthis among Yemen’s other factions within an inclusive political system.

But the prospect of such a settlement looks increasingly dim. The conflict has intensified in recent weeks as the Houthis have launched waves of ballistic missiles at Saudi capital, Riyadh. In response, the Saudi-led coalition has eliminated Houthi leader Saleh Al Sammad, who ranks second on the Arab coalition’s most wanted list in Yemen. Recent statements from the Houthis, moreover, do not augur well for peace. In a March 23 interview in the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, Houthi supremo Abdulmalik Al Houthi stated adamantly his objective to stockpile enough ballistic missiles to achieve “deterrence” against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Borrowing from the Lebanese Hezbollah’s playbook, the Houthi leader assumed an unmistakably ideological tone, dismissing the prospect of disarmament under current circumstances as “a hostile demand” and promising to dispatch Yemeni fighters to fight alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon should a conflict with Israel ever erupt.

Faced with the possibility of a permanent Hezbollah-like presence along Saudi Arabia’s southern border, the Gulf states are determined to see through their military campaign in Yemen with the aim of compelling the Houthis into a settlement that would include their withdrawal and disarmament, especially of ballistic missiles and heavy weaponry, along the lines of UN Security Council Resolution 2216. For Trump, this means deciding whether or not to throw more weight behind the Saudi-led coalition’s impending offensive along Yemen’s west coast in an attempt to break the Houthis’ resolve, in the hope that an Arab deployment in Syria could then materialize.

Hasan Alhasan is a PhD researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.