Will Trump and Bolton clash over Syria?
US President Donald Trump and his new national security adviser, John Bolton, definitely agreed on the need to bomb Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But while the pair can see eye to eye on such a contingency, they basically have divergent views on whether US troops will have to remain on Syrian soil even after the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group is defeated.
Both Trump and Bolton believe the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, decided by then-president Barack Obama, was a mistake, as it left the door open for the regrouping of the local offshoot of al-Qaeda and its morphing into ISIS. But Trump is against a long-term military deployment in post-ISIS Syria (and Iraq). In contrast, Bolton has several times said US conventional forces would have to stay in the Middle Eastern country way beyond the complete elimination of ISIS to reverse Iranian and Russian advances.
In accepting his new job at the White House, Bolton said he would provide Trump with a “full range of views and options” on national security. Regarding Syria and Iraq, it seems he is trying to find a solution that meets his boss’s expectations.
Building a Sunni Arab coalition
It is said that Bolton and US secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo are working to replace the 2,000-strong American contingent in Syria with a Sunni Arab stabilization force once ISIS is neutralized. But if the aim is to bring home US “warriors,” this plan is a non-starter. Saudi Arabia, the other Persian Gulf monarchies, Egypt and Jordan all lack the capabilities to run major operations on the crowded Syrian battlefield without the help of US troops.
It bears noticing that a Saudi-led military coalition is struggling against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. As well, the poor performance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during its military campaign against the Libyan regime in 2011 should serve as a warning to planners in Washington. Indeed, NATO heavyweights such as Britain and France would never have managed to oust Muammar Gaddafi without US support in air-to-air refueling operations, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities.
The Turkish card
Geographic proximity with the Syrian battleground, firepower capacity and NATO membership make Turkey more suited to asserting US interests in the area. Despite its stated commitment to working with Russia and Iran for Syria’s territorial integrity, Ankara has established a “safe zone” in the Syrian north, which borders Turkey’s southern provinces.
But a Turkish-controlled area is not what Bolton had in mind in 2015 when he suggested creating a “Sunni-stan,” an independent Sunni state in parts of Syria and Iraq, as a bulwark against both ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as Iran’s proxies in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent – the Shia (Alawite) regime of Assad, the Hezbollah militant organization in Lebanon and the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Ankara and its local allies are more interested in fighting Syrian Kurds than the Assad forces and their allies – least of all ISIS. The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) armed group is the only reliable asset of the US in Syria, but the Turkish government considers it a terrorist outfit linked to the rebel PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) movement in Turkey.
This situation has inevitably caused a rift between Washington and Ankara, amplified by signals that, after having forced the Kurds from the Syrian canton of Afrin, Turkey and its allies hold the Kurdish-controlled province of Raqqa at gunpoint. Raqqa was the de facto capital of ISIS, and the YPG-dominated and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overran it and its surrounding area last October.
Resorting to the Turkish card would clearly mean abandoning the Syrian Kurds. In illustrating such a scenario to Trump, Bolton would probably point out that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now an unreliable ally who could be pursuing a neo-Ottoman agenda to dominate large part of the Middle East.
A greater independent Kurdistan
In this respect, Bolton could present Trump with another option to protect US strategic interests in “Syraq,” the creation of a greater independent Kurdistan. SDF fighters, together with US troops, currently control the northeastern portion of Syria, which is contiguous to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq.
Bolton argued for Kurdish independence in the past. He supported the Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum on separation from Iraq, which was held last September, and also denounced the Iranian role in the retaliatory operation that Baghdad’s security forces launched the following month to drive Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the oil city of Kirkuk – a view also shared by Pompeo.
Bolton likely would explain to the president that the new territorial entity, combined with the presence of US forces, the political backing of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the material support of Riyadh and other like-minded Sunni regimes, could be used as a bastion against the Assad-Russia-Iran-Iraq axis, as well as Turkey.
And if he were to do so, President Trump would likely shake his head in reaction, telling him, “I don’t agree!”