A U.S. soldier stands near an Oshkosh M-ATV Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) military vehicle during a patrol near the Syrian-Turkish border in one of the villages that was subject to bombardment the previous week in the countryside east of Qamishli in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province on Aug. 21, 2022. (PHOTO BY DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES).
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2022, pp. 40-41
By Stasa Salacanin
AFTER THE U.S. MILITARY bombarded pro-Iranian militia fighters in Syria in response to a drone attack on the American base at Tanf and a missile attack at bases at Deir-al-Zour in August, America’s largely “forgotten” war in Syria has raised questions voiced by global policy analysts and media pundits about the purpose of keeping the U.S. troops in the country.
Not just that the legal justification of the U.S. presence in Syria has been questionable from the very beginning, but the increased danger that future attacks could result in unnecessary civilian or U.S. military casualties that could have been avoided.
Initially, U.S. troops were dispatched to Syria in 2015 as part of the fight against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) and to train and advise Kurdish and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who became key to liberating large chunks of Syrian territory from ISIS.
While the primary goal of the U.S. presence had been a confrontation against the self-proclaimed caliphate, the defeat of ISIS has made the remaining U.S. military presence highly debatable and legally disputed at home and abroad.
However, after the Trump administration drew down and relocated the remaining U.S. forces in 2019, many officials and media pundits expressed concern that by abandoning the Kurds the image of the U.S. as a trustworthy ally would be tarnished and leave the strategic ground for the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran. Today, there are still around 900 U.S. soldiers stationed in the area known as the “Eastern Syria Security Area.”
HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC JUSTIFICATION OF U.S. MILITARY PRESENCE IN SYRIA
After defeating ISIS, Washington expanded its operations to other targets, including pro-Iranian militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, as well as Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries, without legal justification or congressional approval.
In fact, the U.S. has found itself in a vicious cycle of “tit-for-tat” strikes, without any tangible military or political objective. Although the administration reviewed its policy on Syria last year, identifying four main objectives including: maintaining pressure on ISIS through a sustained military presence in eastern Syria; supporting local ceasefires; helping with humanitarian aid and promoting human rights, while pressing for accountability and respect for international law (which Washington has been violating by its contested presence); and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, many analysts are skeptical and believe that the U.S. policy on Syria remains fuzzy.
The Biden administration has so far justified the U.S. actions under the pretext of self-defense against ISIS, broadly expanding it to other groups, which Washington claims represent a direct threat to its counter-ISIS operations. This already shaky claim has been combined with another highly contested argument nicknamed the “unable and unwilling” theory that was initiated during Obama’s administration but continued by Biden’s administration. Tess Bridgeman and Brianna Rosen, in their essay titled “Still at War—The United States in Syria” published by Just Security online forum, explain that according to this theory Syria is perceived as “unable and unwilling” to counter the threat posed by ISIS and al-Qaeda (AQ). According to this theory “a victim state (the United States, on behalf of itself and Iraq) can use force in self-defense against non-state actors located in a different state (Syria) without that state’s consent.” Trump was not shy using force as a part of the “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran and to counter Iranian influence in Syria, describing it as a measure to counter immediate threats to the U.S. In his strategy, Biden has limited the use of immediate threat in favor of “ongoing planning” for future attacks, which actually makes the current American operations even more problematic.
According to Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities and adjunct lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, there is “not any valid legal basis for having troops in Syria.” Even though Biden claims his inherent authority as president to justify the U.S. troop presence and the use of U.S. airstrikes against forces that attack U.S. troops, it cannot justify a long-term occupation—“it is simply illegal,” Friedman told the Washington Report. Furthermore, he said that “we are now attacking Iranian-linked forces to protect forces for an anti-ISIS mission we already achieved, to the extent possible. So we’re risking escalation for nothing.”
GEOSTRATEGIC MOTIVES TO STAY
While past and present administrations have fallen short of offering truly persuasive arguments and legal explanations for fighting and keeping troops in Syria, it seems that Washington’s decision to remain in the country is defined by purely geostrategic motives.
Many observers, including Karin Leukefeld, prominent Middle East correspondent for German media outlets, believes that one of the reasons U.S. troops remain in Syria is because Israel wants them to stay. Physical presence “ensures CENTCOM control and observation over 21 countries in the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, including strategic routes on land and waterways,” she noted. She told the Washington Report there may be another “psychological aspect of the U.S. policy—to avoid further reputation damage after the disastrous withdrawal of Afghanistan.”
In addition, many analysts suggest that the latest round of attacks on U.S. targets comes as a result or retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in other parts of Syria. There are reports, for example in the June 16, 2022 Wall Street Journal, claiming that the Israeli and U.S. governments have closely cooperated and coordinated Israeli strikes on targets in Syria. However, there are ever greater concerns and criticism about exposing the U.S. troops to unnecessary risk on behalf of the interests of a third country, which has been seen by many analysts as a highly irresponsible approach.
Moreover, Washington must not risk the successful conclusion of nuclear negotiations with Iran, no matter how much their allies in the region, primarily Israel, oppose the deal. Regardless of how imperfect the deal may be, it would be the first step toward de-escalation of tensions in the region. However, Friedman believes that because the U.S. targets were Iranian-backed forces and not Iranian troops, the deal’s revival does not rely on what happens in Syria or Iraq. “But, if the conflict somehow escalates, it could endanger the deal certainly,” he explained.
Besides countering Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, Leukefeld thinks that the U.S. presence is also closely linked with deterring Russia and its military, which helped Bashar al-Assad regain power and practically win the civil war. There is a concern that some current American allies in the region and inside Syria may align with Russia, in order to secure their future, once the Americans leave.
Finally, in Leukefeld’s view, the U.S. is in Syria to prevent Damascus from regaining “‘useful Syria,’ or more precisely the Northeast part of the country, where the important resources such as oil, gas, wheat, cotton and water are located.”
WITHDRAWAL IS IMMINENT
However, Joshua Landis, director of Center of Middle East Studies from the Department of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thinks that the U.S. will eventually have to withdraw its forces from Syria. “The neighboring countries are opposed to the U.S. occupying Syrian territory, while the international community insists on a sovereign and integral Syria,” he told the Washington Report. He emphasized that it is “impossible for the U.S. to create an independent Kurdish-led state in north Syria because the Kurds, who number around 2 million, are too few in number and too weak to defend a state in north Syria.” Moreover, he thinks there is no prospect that the U.S. can use the region for leverage to replace the Assad leadership in Damascus, as originally believed. For this reason, he noted, “the U.S. will be harming its clients, the YPG (People’s Defense Units consisting mostly of ethnic Kurds), and SDF (an alliance composed primarily of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian fighters), if it doesn’t prepare them to make arrangements with Damascus for the day that U.S. troops withdraw from Syria, even if it is 5 or 10 years in the future.”
But, he warns that the “U.S. should not repeat the Afghanistan experience in Syria, withdrawing without providing safety to those who worked for it and will be imprisoned or executed for treason, when the U.S. withdraws.”
But prolonging the U.S. engagement, in Friedman’s view, could be a “terrible mistake—not especially costly but quite risky.” It is just a matter of time before one of these repeated incidents and attacks will result in casualties among U.S. troops, personnel and civilians, for no good reason.
Stasa Salacanin is a widely published author and analyst focusing on the Middle East and Europe. He produces in-depth analysis of the region’s most pertinent issues for regional and international publications including the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Middle East Monitor, The New Arab, Gulf News, Al Bawaba, Qantara, Inside Arabia and many more.