U.S. and Russian troops in northeastern Syria are disrupting one another’s movements along a major highway, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. “I think the Russians are always testing us,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich after Turkish media reported that there was a standoff earlier this month, as U.S. forces blocked access to an oil field. Reports say that such encounters have become more common in recent weeks, with the latest happening last week. Thankfully, communication between Washington and Moscow has thus far allowed each side to avoid mistakes that could turn things violent.
However, tensions between the two sides are growing, perfectly illustrating why the U.S. should have exited Syria a long time ago. President Donald Trump’s decision to keep a handful of troops in Syria to protect the oil fields needlessly puts American forces in harm’s way. Before an accident puts us at further risk of a conflict with a nuclear superpower, the U.S. should finally pack up and leave Syria.
There’s no vital U.S. security interest at stake that demands staying in Syria and guarding their oil fields. The Pentagon has stressed that the U.S. mission there is to prevent Islamic State from taking the fields and profiting from the sale of the oil. But after getting hammered in their fight against multiple parties, including the U.S., Russia, Iran and Syria, the remnants of ISIS are in no position to maintain and profit off of oil fields in northeast Syria.
After the fall of the physical ISIS caliphate, the terrorist group was decimated — the stragglers adhering to the radical ideology are today a faint shadow of the group that once terrorized the world. They do not possess the infrastructure needed to push the oil to market. On top of that, ISIS is surrounded on all sides by forces — Syria, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds and Russia — who seek their elimination. These local and regional actors are more than capable and willing to combat the remnants of ISIS.
In the event that a credible threat from ISIS against the homeland emerged, U.S. global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capabilities allow it to combat that threat without a permanent presence in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East. Last year’s raid that killed the leader of ISIS took place in a region of Syria without a U.S. presence, proving that targeted raids remain effective even without a permanent military presence in the region.
U.S. policy in Syria represents a counterproductive “regime change-lite” approach. The U.S. does not actively seek to overthrow the Assad regime anymore, though it did early on in the conflict. But it seems as if the purpose of our policy is to deny Bashar Assad the ability to fully bring Syria back under his control. Given the bad blood between Assad and ISIS, there can be no fears that Damascus would tolerate Syrian oil fields being commandeered by ISIS. In other words, the U.S. presence effectively denies Damascus access to Syria’s oil revenue, which could be used to recover from the civil war. Assad is an abomination, but keeping Syria splintered in this way benefits ISIS more than it hurts him, as he remains fully supported by Moscow.
Much like the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, U.S. actions seem to be intent on simply punishing bad guys. But foreign policy should be about securing vital national interests rather than a moral crusade to twist the world’s arm to conform to our view of justice.
Perhaps the most important reason the U.S. should exit Syria is because its presence risks an unintended conflict with Syria, Iran or Russia. As the reports of U.S. and Russian standoffs show, we are merely one accident or miscommunication away from a war.
While thankfully nothing has happened yet, any time two antagonistic parties that are armed to the teeth rub up against each other the wrong way, mistakes can happen. It’s not a foregone conclusion that every encounter will end peacefully. This is a risk the U.S. should not take.
Syria is a weak, poor state in a region that is becoming less strategically significant by the day. Sticking around makes ending the civil war more difficult and puts a very limited number of U.S. troops in harm’s way for a mission that does nothing to make us here at home any safer. It’s time to take the U.S. presence in Syria off autopilot. It’s time to come home.
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy organization that seeks “to inform citizens, thought leaders, and policymakers of the importance of a strong, dynamic military — used more judiciously to protect America’s narrowly defined national interests — and promote a realistic grand strategy prioritizing restraint, diplomacy, and free trade to ensure U.S. security.”