Indirect reasons for the staying of U.S. forces

Photo credits: picture-alliance/dpa

Although former US President Donald Trump promised to withdraw the U.S. troops from Syria, controversy over the decision prompted him to continue stationing troops there until the end of his presidency. However, President Joe Biden has pushed the United States to end its “eternal wars” in the Middle East, but at the same time, experts have noted that there are complex factors, like America’s commitments to regional partners that have pushed the United States to continue in Syria.

An important factor is aligned to the security of Israel, which is to monitor Iranian activities in Syria and prevent it from obtaining a safe land route to the Golan and Lebanon on the Mediterranean. Those Iranian plans became a real concern for Tel Aviv during the past years, which periodically targets transfers of weapons and fighters affiliated with Iran, through air strikes coordinated with Russian forces in Syria. The most important information about the Iranian movements Israel seems to obtain through U.S. bases, which are located at the Syria – Iraqi border, in the central Euphrates River Valley, the area that U.S. forces call Merv, which has been cleared of ISIS between 2017 and 2020.

In 2018, Iran began to increase its interest in investing in this region, according to the Jerusalem Post, to turn it into a “corridor to the sea” so that it could transfer weapons through Albu Kamal to the T-4 base, and then to Lebanon, Damascus, and the Golan. Iran has built a base called Imam Ali to facilitate the storage and transportation of weapons, which have been targeted by airstrikes several times. Iranian and Syrian media have blamed Israel for those airstrikes.

Additionally to that, Syria is a hub for the exchange of messages between the competing parties, specifically Russia, the United States, Iran, and Israel, due to the direct presence of foreign fighters affiliated with those countries. In Syria and Iraq the state structure more or less collapsed. In Iraq Iran controls the joints of the Iraqi state and managed to keep an army structure and a recognized elected government, while in Syria the army does not control all territory. The nature of the U.S. presence in Syria is different from the nature of its presence in Iraq. There are agreements on which Washington bases the file of the military presence, while in Syria the American presence started through an intervention by the international coalition only, without a consensus between American institutions and the Syrian regime institutions. This is one of the main reasons why the Syrian arena is the most suitable place for the exchange of fiery messages between all involved parties. With tensions between countries over Ukraine and thorny negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the United States wants to strengthen its negotiating position again and confuses its adversaries who predicted that Syria would be the second country from which U.S. troops would withdraw after Iraq. This was confirmed by the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, who said that the escalation of security events in eastern Syria at the end of last year was the passing of a message in revenge for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Similarly, U.S. strikes on Iranian militias in late August 2022 can be seen as reassuring Israel that the U.S. presence in Syria will provide it with protection for Israeli security, even if an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program between Tehran and the United States has been reached.

“The United States has targeted a range of bunkers used to store ammunition and logistical support by Iranian-backed groups in Syria. The U.S. military monitored a total of 13 hideouts in the same compound after surveillance in total invested more than 400 hours“, said Colonel Joe Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command to CNN on August 24.

“The strike in eastern Syria was in response to attacks by Iranian-backed groups against U.S. forces in Syria on August 15, and demonstrates our determination to defend U.S. forces and equipment“, General Eric Corella, commander of U.S. Central Command, said.

“The reason for the retaliatory strikes is in order to protect and defend the safety of our employees and to weaken and disrupt the ongoing series of attacks against the United States and our partners, and deterrence more attacks“, U.S. President Joe Biden on the 25th of August 2022 made clear during a speech to the Congress.

While a majority of Americans supported the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, opinion polls indicate that most of them support the continued counterterrorism role of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. Staying in Syria is a limited effort compared to the state-building mission in Afghanistan.

What benefits does the staying of U.S. forces in Syria offer?

U.S. policy in Syria remains “shy.” “The Americans don’t want to have a big fight in Syria. Washington has not yet identified a strategic interest in Syria that justifies a major war there,” Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said in an editorial for the Saudi-funded Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in May this year.

“That the United States play an important role in stabilizing northeastern Syria, I think a lot of people underestimate that. It keeps the pressure on ISIS and prevents chaos. In doing so, they maintain a balance of power that protects millions of Syrians in this region. There are consequences for their presence and they are mostly positive. This is something that many U.S. policymakers don’t like to talk about because their mandate was only to fight ISIS, not to protect civilians,” according to Darren Khalifa, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group said.

At the same time, Khalifa agrees with critics of the U.S. presence in Syria in pointing to policy failures. One example is the growing likelihood of Türkiye launching more attacks against the SDF. She noted that “these tensions have multiplied with U.S. support for the SDF. It is a problem that will not disappear on its own. In the end, Türkiye is there to stay.”

If the United States maintain its tepid commitment in northeastern Syria and limits its presence to narrow national security calculations rather than broader goals of regional stabilization and de-escalation, there is a risk that growing hostility will translate into a possible U.S. withdrawal. This would indeed be tantamount to a decline in Washington’s ability to meaningfully influence the dynamics of the Syrian conflict and any future political settlement.

U.S. military deployments and bases reassure allies, deter adversaries, and support humanitarian missions and military training. It also serves as a command center for diverse operations, including drug prevention and counterterrorism. Military bases give the United States the ability to respond to emerging threats and crises in the region, and they may support political change in the host country. In some cases, such as the Philippines, the formerly authoritarian host countries have become democratic. In contrast, increased external competition and increased domestic political pressure may reduce opportunities for the United States and this seems to be happening in Syria, where the new policy does not imply any change in approach and is essentially a continuation of the light temporary policy. The United States are likely to maintain the same path of gradual disengagement from Syria if Washington does not decide to press increasingly against Russian influence in Syria.

All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.