America's forgotten war in Syria isn't stopping

By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: November 28, 2018

The United States is fighting a war in Syria. It's a quiet war with debatable legal standing, but it is a real war nonetheless. Estimates of the number of U.S. troops there over the past year run anywhere from about 500 into the thousands.

In theory, at least, the U.S. presence in Syria is about defeating the Islamic State, the extremist group that controlled major chunks of Syria and Iraq in recent years and later orchestrated or inspired terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. Today, the U.S. government claims the Islamic State is near total defeat.

Yet the Trump administration has declared it will be in Syria indefinitely. Does that mean that the enemy is not, in fact, as defeated as it seems? Or does it mean that the mission has crept beyond the Islamic State? In this case, the answer may be both.

The Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it held at the peak of its power in 2014 and 2015. This is largely thanks to a U.S.-led military intervention — particularly the use of American air power — that began under the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration. It is also a success that came at a high cost to Syrian civilians, according to groups such as Amnesty International.

But if the Islamic State is down, it is not yet out. Two estimates released over the summer suggested that the group may still have more than 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. And there's at least some evidence that its military operations are not over quite over yet, either.

Over the weekend, the Islamic State is believed to have killed dozens of U.S.-backed fighters in Deir al-Zour, a province in eastern Syria that is one of the group's few remaining regional strongholds. Syria's minority populations, such as the Druze, have expressed concerns that the Islamic State is regrouping in remote parts of the country. And this year, the Islamic State made a comeback in parts of central Iraq with a wave of kidnappings and assassinations.

Such developments are hardly a surprise. Indeed, many experts warned that even after the Islamic State lost the territory it controlled, it would remain a powerful insurgent group for years. But the United States is already moving on to a different - and not altogether complementary — foreign policy objective.

In January, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered an expanded view of American goals in Syria. "Continued strategic threats to the U.S. other than ISIS persist. I am referring principally to Iran," Tillerson said at an event at Stanford University, suggesting that the U.S. military presence in Syria was operating on an indefinite timeline.

Tillerson may be gone, but the United States has only focused more of its attention on Iran. John Bolton, who has served as the White House national security adviser since April, is a fierce critic of Tehran. Just weeks after Bolton assumed his role, Trump announced he would be pulling out of the nuclear deal reached with Iran under President Barack Obama. In September, he told reporters in New York that the United States would not leave Syria "as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias."

The U.S. government keeps a tight lid on what it is doing in Syria, even when there are horrific incidents such as the recent shooting of a U.S. Marine by a Syrian ally. Seth Harp, writing for the New Yorker, recently made a rare visit to the largest of about a dozen American bases in the country - at more than 500 square acres, it is about the size of Monaco. There he found a strange little slice of America in Syria.

"It could be here or Kuwait or doing training in Texas or Mississippi, but it all looks the same and feels the same," said one bored, Pringles-eating National Guardsman.

Neither they, nor anyone else, seems to know how long this will go on. President Trump's bellicose pledges to destroy the Islamic State - and then withdraw Americans from the Middle East — certainly helped him win the 2016 election. Since then, he hasn't missed many chances to tout the successes of the war. "We've defeated ISIS. ISIS is defeated in all of the areas that we fought ISIS, and that would have never happened under President Obama," he told the Associated Press in October.

But he also affirmed that the United States would be staying in Syria for the foreseeable future. "We're going to see what happens," he said. His strongest move in protest of the indefinite American presence there has been to pull back funding that was allocated to rebuild parts of Syria once held by the United States — hardly a move that might promote a clean break from the country.

And by refocusing its efforts on Iran before the Islamic State is fully defeated, the United States runs the risk of setting itself two contradictory standards for victory. If that happens, the United States is likely to suffer at least one loss - and its quiet war in Syria may only get bigger.

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