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As US withdraws troops from Syria, France and UK remain in the back seat

Delil Souleiman, AFP | A picture taken on December 30, 2018, shows a line of US military vehicles in Syria's northern city of Manbij.

Although they have lambasted US President Donald Trump’s military plan to withdraw troops from Syria, neither France nor the UK have committed to replacing the departing American soldiers.

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Trump's announcement on December 18 that the US would withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria provoked consternation amongst its European allies – most notably France and the UK, the old continent’s largest military powers, both of which have special forces in the country. The former says it has “around 1,000” soldiers in Syria; the UK has not revealed how many troops it has on the ground.

In the immediate aftermath of this declaration from the White House, Paris and London both refuted Trump’s claim that “we have won against ISIS” (another name for the Islamic State group), with French Defence Minister Florence Parly insisting that the “Islamic State [another name for the Islamic State group] has not been wiped from the map”, while the UK Foreign Office asserted that “much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat [the IS group] pose”. Speaking to Reuters on December 20, a French presidential source went further, stating that “the coalition’s spine is the United States”.

Adding to French and British concerns, the Kurdish forces who took back control swathes of northeastern Syria from the IS group warned that, if attacked without Western support, they may no longer be able to guard the hundreds of European jihadists held in their jails – leading to US calls for European countries to repatriate these prisoners.

Yet despite the Franco-British protestations, neither country has committed to increasing its military presence in Syria. One French government official even told AFP on February 15: “It is totally out of the question to have French troops on the ground without the Americans there”.

‘Neither country intends to replace US troops’

Then on February 21 White House announced plans to keep “a small peacekeeping force” of around 400 soldiers in Syria – although it is doubtful that these remaining personnel will be effective in combating the IS group on their own. “I will quote what my colleague, Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley, once said to [then British Prime Minister] John Major over the Bosnia conflict: ‘your advisors are bloody fools if they think they can deploy peacekeepers where there is no peace to be kept,’” said Simon Anglim, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Instead, the US's purpose in keeping 400 troops in Syria appears to be to provoke European countries into pull their weight militarily. Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator close to the president, expressed a specific desire that this small US force “will attract probably 1,000 Europeans”, in an interview with Fox News. In response to Graham’s comments, Trump said the US contingent should be accompanied by “others”, “whether it’s NATO troops or whoever it might be, so that [IS] doesn’t start again”.

Nevertheless, the news that the US will only keep a fifth of its current forces in Syria has still not prompted any military commitment from Paris or London.

“Neither country intends to replace US troops there,” said Julien Theron, a security analyst and Middle East specialist at Sciences-Po University in Paris. “The idea is to consolidate the fight against IS that has already taken place, which will be difficult given that there are still remnants of IS on the ground in Syria,” he told FRANCE 24.

When asked by FRANCE 24 whether France is keen to replace the departing US troops in Syria and whether the remaining US peacekeepers will be enough to achieve the coalition’s objectives there, a Quai d’Orsay spokesperson merely reiterated France’s objectives in Syria – to “continue the campaign against Daesh” (another name for the Islamic State group), to “protect civilians and ensure safe and unhindered access to international aid” and to “seek a negotiated political solution […] which alone is able to guarantee a lasting victory against Daesh”.

‘Post-Afghanistan and post-Libya gun shyness’

“France and the UK certainly have the military capacity to replace the departing Americans, and could even escalate their involvement to conventional warfare, as both countries have large, well-equipped and very capable intervention forces,” Anglim pointed out. “But my suspicion is that commitment on this scale would never happen due to post-Afghanistan and post-Libya gun shyness.”

Domestic distractions are also likely to be prevent both governments from increasing their countries’ military involvement in Syria, Anglim continued: “[UK Prime Minister] Theresa May and her successor will be dealing with Brexit long after 29 March this year, while [French President] Emmanuel Macron is facing the Yellow Vest movement and the last thing either of them needs under these circumstances is another messy, complicated intervention in a faraway place with no quick or obvious way out.”

That is while the antagonism of President Bashar al-Assad’s resurgent regime towards the presence of Western troops in Syria is another factor disincentivising the two European countries from sending more soldiers to the country, Theron argued: “France and the UK barely have the strategic opportunity to replace the US in a country where the regime does not want them.”

US presence ‘makes it harder for Turkey to attack the Kurds’

Many observers fear that a US withdrawal would leave the American-allied Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria vulnerable to an attack by Turkey. Ankara considers the Kurdish militia in Syria as an extension of the PKK, a militant group that has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984. Analysts say that – despite having a limited ability to tackle the remnants of IS in Syria – the current small contingents of French and British special forces in Syria, in tandem with the 400 US peacekeepers, are likely to prevent other countries from attacking coalition allies.

Small-scale military deployments like this “are only partly about increasing military effectiveness on the ground”, said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Arguably such deployments’ most important function is to deter attack by state rivals – for example the presence of US advisors makes it harder for Turkey to attack the Kurds.”

With this in mind, Biddle concluded, a French or British military operation is only likely to be effective if the US is involved, because an American presence increases the likelihood of “triggering a broader NATO response if the coalition’s allies [such as the Kurds]  are attacked by Turkey or Russia or Iran”.

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