President Biden has moved quickly to end America’s “forever wars” in the Middle East with one glaring exception: the counterterrorism mission in Syria, where a withdrawal does not appear to even be on the table and a high-stakes geopolitical standoff between Washington and Moscow has greatly complicated the U.S. calculus.
About 900 American troops are deployed inside Syria, Pentagon officials said recently, with no indication that the number will drop substantially anytime soon. The troops’ stated mission, in partnership with Syrian Kurdish rebel forces, is to battle the Islamic State group, which remains a serious threat despite its reduction from a legitimate land army to more of a covert terrorist network.
The U.S. troops are just one force in a raging civil war. Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces and proxies are battling amid a domestic political uprising against President Bashar Assad and a surge of jihadi groups such as al Qaeda.
There are no clear indications when, if ever, the U.S. will declare ISIS defeated and proceed with a pullout from Syria. President Trump tried and failed twice to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country, and one attempt led directly to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The military mission in Syria appears to have quietly expanded. When Mr. Trump first declared the mission over, the Pentagon said about 450 troops remained. Today, the number is over 900.
Having so far survived two presidents eager to bring troops back from the region, the Syria mission stands in stark contrast with the one in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump negotiated and Mr. Biden followed through with a withdrawal that paved the way for a rapid Taliban takeover of the country. The final U.S. troops left Afghanistan last week, capping a 20-year campaign that stands as the longest war in American history.
The Biden administration also has wound down the long-standing war in Iraq. The U.S. will keep about 2,500 troops in the country but relabel them as advisers and military trainers. He has essentially declared an end to the American combat mission there.
Syria is a different case, some specialists say. A unique cast of international actors and fragile alliances has turned the nation into one of the world’s most complex powder kegs. No short-term solution appears to be on the horizon.
Syria‘s proximity makes the territory appealing to Israel’s enemies. Iran has moved forces into Syria and subsequently found itself in a low-level conflict with Israeli air power. Iran-backed militias operating on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border have regularly targeted U.S. forces, and Mr. Biden has ordered several retaliatory airstrikes against those groups.
Russia has found Syria to be a welcoming home for its military expansion across the Middle East. Its troops have been key to the survival of Mr. Assad’s embattled government during the 10-year-old civil war. In exchange, the Russians have built permanent military bases and had extensive real-world tests of their military equipment and tactics.
The presence of Turkish forces is another factor in the volatile equation. The Turkish military operates civilian “safe zones” in portions of Syria, but Ankara has been at odds with Russia, Mr. Assad’s government and even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, parts of which Turkey considers to be terrorists.
American troops are acting as a stabilizing force to some degree. Regardless of why the U.S. sent troops to Syria in the first place, pulling out now would have major ramifications for American competition with its greatest rivals, said Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Great-power competition with both China and Russia is a global competition, and that includes the Middle East. The idea that we need to get out of the Middle East so we can compete with China and Russia is a foolish one,” Mr. Bowman told The Washington Times in an interview. “Russia has a major role in Syria. We know Assad probably would not be in power were it not for Moscow. We know Russia’s primary interests are the bases that … Assad provides them.
“If we withdraw, we will have even less influence … and the primary influencers will be Tehran and Moscow,” he said. “And another core American interest is standing with Israel. … We know Tehran has tried for years to create a land bridge” to supply its regional allies such as Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Some analysts say Mr. Biden and his aides have left the Syrian deployment in place largely for lack of a better alternative.
Mr. Biden “has been operating with an interim Syria policy that has lacked purpose and direction thus far,” Abdulrahman al-Masri, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs, wrote last week.
“It has largely been a continuation of the previous administration’s policy — namely, maintaining a low-cost stabilization mission in northeastern Syria and economic pressure on the [Assad] regime without a clear policy objective.”
Indeed, even if Biden administration officials won’t say so publicly, it seems clear that the U.S. is driven at least partly by a desire to use its Syrian presence to check Russia, Iran and other actors. Top administration officials have insisted in recent days that the U.S. can have a major counterterrorism presence all over the world, including in Afghanistan, without troops on the ground, raising questions about why the U.S. still needs a physical presence in Syria.
“We’ll maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize those threats, if necessary, as we demonstrated in the past few days by striking ISIS facilitators and imminent threats in Afghanistan and as we do in places around the world where we do not have military forces on the ground,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week, citing the Syrian conflict as a prime example.
The Pentagon has rejected talk of a drawdown and even went public with a denial of an Iranian media report that U.S. forces had pulled back from three bases in Syria.
“This is not true. The standards of our mission in Syria remain the same,” a Pentagon spokesman said last week.
ISIS-K, the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, is believed to be responsible for an attack last week on the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans. The relationship between ISIS-K in Afghanistan and the other Islamic State factions, particularly those active in Iraq and Syria, is not clear.
American forces played a central role in dismantling the once-mighty terrorist group, which at its height in 2014 and 2015 controlled a massive swath of territory straddling Syria and Iraq. U.S. ground forces, air power and logistical support in Iraq and Syria reduced the extremist network’s territorial footprint, though Pentagon officials warn that ISIS remains a threat and is still capable of waging a low-level insurgency.
Biden administration officials have said they do not envision looming changes to the U.S. posture in Syria. American personnel are expected to continue training and working beside the SDF and other allies in the fight against ISIS.
The U.S. remains the leader of the global anti-ISIS coalition, but the SDF and other allies are doing much of the heavy lifting on the ground with the support of U.S. intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. That partnership was seen in action again late last month.
“In two successful raids against [the Islamic State group], our SDF partners w/the @Coalition ‘s ISR support, were instrumental in arresting 5 terrorists & seizing weapons & equipment east [of] Deir Ez-Zor” in eastern Syria,” Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, wrote in a Twitter post to announce some of the latest joint U.S.-SDF missions.
“Together, we remain united in our pursuit of ensuring the lasting” defeat of ISIS, he said.
The U.S. approach in Syria has ratcheted up tensions with Moscow. In July, top Russian officials blasted U.S. claims that Washington has a right under international law to conduct counterterrorism missions in Syria, even without the Assad government’s permission.
“It’s a matter of fact that U.S. armed forces have no legal mandate to stay in Syria,” the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a Twitter post.
The Pentagon countered that the U.S. has a clear right to operate in Syria as a matter of self-defense.
U.S.-Russian tensions in Syria have occasionally led to near disaster. In August 2020, a collision between U.S. and Russian military vehicles injured four American service members.
The Defense Department says U.S. and Russian military leaders are in regular communication to prevent such incidents.