Recent clashes show why US forces should exit Syria
This week, four U.S. service members were injured in northeastern Syria and diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms after being pursued and deliberately rammed into by a Russian military convoy. Nine days earlier, a joint U.S.-Kurdish military patrol near the Syrian town of Tal al-Zahab was engaged with small-arms fire from a nearby pro-Syrian regime checkpoint.
If there is a lesson in these two incidents, it is that the U.S. military should not waste another moment before it packs up and withdraws from this irreconcilable conflict. The supposed benefits of the approximately 600-strong U.S. service member presence in Syria have long since been overshadowed by the costs.
Seventeen months after recapturing the last small portion of territory under Islamic State’s control, the U.S. mission in Syria has transformed from a manageable counterterrorism operation into a multi-dimensional exercise in stabilization. In effect, the U.S. military is being used to prevent Bashar Assad from reestablishing full control in a low-grade version of regime change. Instead of acknowledging success and redeploying back home after the elimination of ISIS’ territorial caliphate, U.S. military personnel have spent the last year and a half performing tasks at odds with the original mission.
The near-catastrophe on Aug. 17 is not the first time U.S. troops in eastern Syria have quarreled with hostile forces. Present-day Syria is the real life equivalent of “Mad Max,” where central authority is nonexistent, a kaleidoscope of forces seek to carve out their own areas of control, and minor incidents threaten to deteriorate into confrontations between opposing armies. Turkish and Russian troops, pro-Syrian militias, Kurdish forces, and U.S. servicemembers are all operating in an area the size of a small U.S. state.
The most infamous clash occurred in February 2018, when hundreds of Russian private security contractors armed with T-72 tanks and 125-mm guns launched an artillery attack against a small detachment of U.S. and Syrian Kurdish fighters encamped in an isolated outpost in Deir ez-Zor province The 40-man team was able to hold off the much larger force by virtue of tactical skill, courage under fire, and the mighty firepower of the U.S. Air Force. By the time the hourslong battle was over, 200-300 Russian mercenaries were killed and the remainder retreated to its original position. It was a miracle the U.S. didn’t suffer any casualties.
Two smaller but no less troubling incidents took place in October and November 2019. In the first, U.S. troops stationed in the Syrian border city of Kobani came under fire from Turkish shelling in what some U.S. officials believed was a deliberate provocation by Ankara. Weeks later, a U.S. convoy traveling on the M-4 highway was nearly hit by Turkish artillery fire. Three months later, U.S. and Syrian soldiers came to blows when a U.S. team ran into a Syrian regime checkpoint near the city of Qimishli. While no American was hurt, one Syrian was killed in the exchange of fire. Were it not for the Russian military’s deescalation, the casualties would have almost certainly been worse.
Despite all this, U.S. officials continue to argue Washington has core national security interests in Syria that necessitate a troop presence. U.S. Central Command’s commander, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, stated on Aug. 12 that local security forces require U.S. assistance to be fully capable of handling the threat of ISIS on their own. U.S. policymakers, however, have failed to offer a convincing case to the American people about why the U.S. military is responsible for taking the lead in destroying what is left of the scattered organization. Given the tendency of terrorist groups to constantly adapt depending on the environment and the skill with which these groups can bide their time, a counter-insurgency objective is a recipe for another endless U.S. military deployment in a highly combustible part of the Middle East.
U.S. troops accomplished everything they sought to achieve. To the extent ISIS continues to control any territory at all, it is relegated to remote, inhospitable sections of the northern Iraqi countryside and small parts of the Syrian desert. Local actors in Syria are more than capable of conducting mop-up operations against ISIS, particularly at a time when the group is largely incapable of conducting the kinds of operations that captured international attention five years earlier. Just as important, diverse stakeholders ranging from the Assad government, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Kurds all have an incentive to ensure ISIS doesn’t resurrect itself. Nobody in the Middle East has an interest in sitting passively by as ISIS militants attempt to make a comeback. This will be the case even if Washington withdraws U.S. forces from Syria.
Syria itself is likely to be a broken, dysfunctional country for many years to come. The extensive damage that has resulted from nearly a decade of civil war will require at least $250 billion to repair. It could very well take a generation before Syria’s economy recovers to its pre-war level. Assuming such a recovery is even possible, Syria will remain internally divided by a litany of competing interests. The social, economic and political grievances that fueled the war in the first place will continue to percolate. If Iran and Russia believe Syria can be turned into a compliant vassal state, both are likely to be disappointed.
Syria’s systemic issues can’t be resolved by the U.S. military — nor should Washington make the grave error of thinking Syria’s fractious politics is a U.S. problem.
The only job left for the U.S. to do in Syria is to complete what it should have done last year: implement a full and unconditional withdrawal before a similar security incident claims the life of one more American.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.