“Putting Arab Soldiers on the Ground”

Co-authored with Yusuf Buluç (*)

May 7, 2018

At his joint press conference with his French counterpart President Trump said:

“And if I might add, the states and, as I alluded to — and countries that are in the area, some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States and, to a lesser extent, France.  But they wouldn’t be there except for the United States.  They wouldn’t last a week.  We’re protecting them… 

“… And they will pay for it.  They will pay for it.  We’ve spoken to them.  They will pay for it.  The United States will not continue to pay.  And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing…” (emphasis added)

And, in his joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel he said, “I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.”

Thus, he underlined the importance he attaches to the economic/financial aspects of security. However, immense wealth does not necessarily mean immense military power. The New York Times reported last Thursday that U.S. Army Special Forces are now secretly helping Saudis locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites that Houthi rebels in Yemen are using to attack Riyadh and other Saudi cities.

The idea of “putting Arab soldiers on the ground” has an uninspiring history.

One of Arab Spring’s main features has been Arabs fighting Arabs. This has paved the ground for external meddling. Moreover, it has created opportunities for terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al Qaida and al Nusra to entrench themselves across the region and in the case of ISIS to claim large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

At the end of the 26th Arab League summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, participating leaders announced the establishment of a unified Arab force to address regional security challenges. The project was also addressed at the US-GCC summit meeting held at Camp David in mid-May. Leaders agreed to set up a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, bearing in mind Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force” to mount or contribute in a coordinated way to counter-terrorism, peace-keeping and stabilization operations in the region.

Some observed that if the idea were to be put into practice it would end up being a Sunni force, thus exacerbating sectarian divisions rather than mitigating them. Many others were inclined to see this as a distant dream in the face of current Arab feuds and so far, they have proven right.

On February 4, 2016 Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, an adviser to the Saudi Defense Minister and spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen reportedly stated that the Kingdom was ready to participate in any ground operations that the anti-ISIS coalition may agree to carry out in Syria. He also said that to win against Islamic State, the coalition needed to combine aerial operations with ground operations.

In response to questions about this statement, then U.S. Defense Secretary Carter said that increased activity by other countries would make it easier for the United States to accelerate its fight against Islamic State militants. “That kind of news is very welcome,” he told reporters and added that he looked forward to discussing the offer of ground troops with the Saudi Defense Minister.

The Saudi statement was later echoed by U.A.E officials who said that their country was also prepared to deploy troops, “but not in the thousands”, to fight ISIL in Syria should the US-led coalition were to agree.

With no external power ready and willing to put enough boots on the ground, the concept of fighting ISIS with a collective Arab force could have been a credible incentive for its creation and a test for the much-desired political cohesion of the Arab world. After all, Iraq and Syria are Arab countries, the combatants were essentially Arabs and such a force could have helped prevent political/cultural complications of an external intervention.

We raised the possibility of deploying an Arab force in Syria weeks before Iran and the P5+1 announced their agreement on the JCPOA on July 14, 2015 when Iran-U.S. relations looked more promising, and Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015. Later we said that if such an initiative were to be launched, the following would have to be addressed and resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved:

  • The U.S. and Russia need to reach a formal and clearly defined accord on the composition and the mission of such a force in consultation with the potential force contributing states as well as Syria on whose sovereign territory the force will operate. They should also agree how they would give it logistical and battlefield support.
  • Designed to fight an illegitimate phenomenon like ISIS, the legitimacy of the force would be paramount. Both its concept and formation as well as its employment must be sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution.
  • Deployment should be subject to and follow the achievement of a country-wide ceasefire in Syria, with credible measures to be put in place for its sustainment.
  • The mission of the force should be defined in the UN Security Council resolution as “totally defeating ISIS”. Any involvement whatsoever in the Syrian war should be strictly prohibited, accompanied with measures that will draw clear and enforceable lines of separation between other forces in the field.
  • For purposes of comprehensive planning and execution of military operations, Iraq and Syria must be defined as a single theatre.
  • Iraqi security forces should be a principal component of such a force to avoid sectarian sensitivities. Gulf states lack the manpower and battlefield experience to make a substantial contribution to such a force. And, they are engaged in Yemen. Egypt and Jordan must shoulder a greater share.
  • Issues like strategic and tactical command, control and communication, intelligence processing, interoperability, headquarter facilities which are so critical to force employment should be addressed.
  • Operations should be launched from Jordan and Iraq and not from Turkey. Arab countries have never approved Turkey’s involvement in intra-Arab affairs and Turkey’s involvement will overshadow the Arab character of the force. Turkey, however, may continue to offer İncirlik air base to coalition aircraft for strikes against ISIS.
  • Turkey and her NATO allies must seal off the entire Turkish-Syrian border to prevent any attempts of infiltration by the members of ISIS as this would be a vitally important measure as total defeat will force ISIS to disperse.

The term “Arab spring” has already proven to be a misnomer and so has the term “Syrian civil war”.  The war in Syria has been everything but civil. History will record it as much for its human strife and tragedy as an episode of missed opportunities. The indispensable hallmarks we assigned earlier to a force, that is all-Arab, UN sanctioned, Syria approved, and US-Russia blessed for it to be successful are no longer attainable. Like-mindedness, let alone strategic harmony, has always been a scarce commodity and today it just doesn’t exist on the Middle East market. Arab countries contributing to a multinational peace-monitoring/peace-keeping force together with other countries and to Syria’s rebuilding, if it ever comes to that, could be a more realistic expectation.


(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy.















About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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