American occupation of Northern Syria is becoming Saudi-sponsored
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American occupation of Northern Syria is becoming Saudi-sponsored

Bin Salman and Trump (photo: Reuters)

At the end of March, US President Donald Trump announced the end of illegal presence of US military forces on Syrian territory. "We're coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now, very soon. Very soon, we're coming out," Trump told a cheering crowd in Richfield, Ohio. "By the way, we're knocking the hell out of Daesh," he added.

The Obama administration launched a war in 2014 against Daesh, after the group flourished in the chaos of the Syrian War and then surged over the Iraq border in a bid to overtake Baghdad. The US maintains a remote base at Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, in the middle of that corridor. It's there that Special Operations forces coordinate with Syrian opposition fighters to wipe out the remaining ISIS fighters holed up in a series of towns along the Euphrates River and a stretch of desert straddling the Iraq-Syria border.

Officially, there are currently about 2,000 US troops, although some put this number much higher, working with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to recapture territory from Daesh, which includes the militants' self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. Daesh is on the verge of defeat as a conventional military force. Although they no longer are in control of any major city in Iraq or Syria, the fighting is not over completely. A total of 14 US troops have been killed fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria since the operation began nearly four years ago. Despite bin Salman's wishes, American forces are not inside the country to act as a counterweight to Iran.

Bin Salman wants them to stay

Despite Trump's declaration, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants the US military to maintain a presence in Syria. "We believe American troops should stay for at least the mid-term, if not the long-term," he told in a wide-ranging interview for Time. Bin Salman, a 32-year old who last year disrupted the line of succession when he became next in line for the Saudi throne, has emerged as the most powerful Saudi ruler in decades. In addition to being selected as the crown prince, he serves as First Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, and Minister of Defense.

Crown Prince said the American troop presence inside Syria is the last effort stopping Iran, Saudi Arabia's arch-enemy, from continuing to expand influence with regional allies. US forces inside the country also allow Washington to have a say in Syria's future. Bin Salman claims that "Iran, through proxy militias and regional allies, will establish a overland supply route that leads from Beirut through Syria and Iraq to Tehran," and that so-called "Shiite Crescent would give Iran a greater foothold in a tumultuous region through a string of allies."

"If you take those troops out from east Syria, you will lose that checkpoint," bin Salman said. "And this corridor could create a lot of things in the region." Bin Salman is the architect of the three-year old conflict in Yemen, pitting Saudi-backed forces against alleged 'Iranian-backed' Houthi rebels. The war has plunged the Arab world's poorest nation into a humanitarian crisis which is worsened daily by famine, widespread disease and the deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire. The Saudi Prince made his remarks on Syria just hours after Trump's declaration of pulling out.

Israel shares Saudi views

Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel who is now working in Tel Aviv, said Trump's pronouncements were stirring turmoil in the region. "It raises fundamental questions not just for Israel, for our Kurdish allies, even our adversaries, about whether the United States plans to remain in Syria to complete the fight against Daesh and to help prevent an Iranian takeover of those areas that Daesh has vacated," he said. Israelis fear that the defeat of Daesh, while welcome, leaves in place Iran, an enemy, and Russia, a country that is friendly to Israel but whose interests are not as aligned as the United States. Russia has been Iran's de facto ally in Syria.

The US presence is comparatively limited, but simply by maintaining a presence, the United States signals that it has Israel's back, freeing Israel to take action as it did in February when Israel conducted airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.  That becomes "a much shakier proposition absent the US presence," said Moshe Maoz, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Israel's preeminent commentator on Syria. "Israel will have to bomb Iranian positions in Syria if Iran establishes a weapons supply line to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Iran that is assisting Syria, or if it establishes a permanent presence in Syria," said Maoz. "And the danger is that the Russians will intervene, and Israel needs the backing of the United States." Russian officials have reportedly told their Israeli counterparts that Israel likely will have to put up with a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.

Trump demands money for staying

Donald Trump has responded that Saudi Arabia might have to pay if it wants continuing US presence in Syria. "We've almost completed that task (of defeating Daesh) and we'll be making a determination very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we'll do," said Trump during a White House press conference with leaders from three Baltic nations. "Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said: Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you're going to have to pay."

Trump also railed against ongoing US intervention in the Middle East and its growing cost. "We do a lot of things in this country, we do them for a lot of reasons, but it is very costly for our country, and it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us. Think of it, $7 trillion over a 17-year period. We have nothing. Nothing except death and destruction. It's a horrible thing. So it is time. It is time" he added. In a December phone call with Saudi King Salman, Trump had an idea he thought could hasten a US exit from Syria: ask the king for $4 billion. Representatives at the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a question about the $4 billion request.

History repeats

Trump's talk of pulling out is actually nothing new. Already by mid-February, Trump was telling his top aides in meetings that as soon as victory can be declared against Daesh, he wanted American troops out of Syria, said the officials. Alarm bells went off at the State Department and the Pentagon, where officials have other plans. Hawkish members of the administration on Middle East policy, pressed Trump on the idea of expanding the mission beyond the defeat of Daesh, underscoring the negative long-term impact that a win for Iran, Russia and Assad would have on US allies such as Israel and Jordan. Trump's speech about pulling out most probably was a show for the domestic audience, and additional pressure on the Saudis to accept the payment. The Saudi sponsoring of foreign forces is also nothing new as they have already did the same during the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War.

Backed by Iranian military aid and Russian air-power, Syrian President Bashar Assad has nearly defeated the rebel groups spawned in the chaos of foreign-backed rebellion. The insurgents still hold scraps of territory, but they have no hope of challenging Assad's hold on power. As a result, Iran has extended its influence and reach inside Syria. Trump's recent appointment of John Bolton, who has been an outspoken critic of Iran's regional dominance, as National Security Adviser may reshape American foreign policy toward Tehran. Since yesterday's chemical attack allegations against the Syrian government, Russia and Iran, we are witnessing the latest results of this American-Saudi-Israeli alliance and their policies.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.