How long will the US stay in Syria after the Islamic State group is crushed?

How long will the US stay in Syria after the Islamic State group is crushed?
Analysis: The Pentagon has invested significant resources in northern Syria, and doesn't seem to be in a rush to leave, notes Paul Iddon.
4 min read
23 August, 2017
Brett McGurk, President Trump's envoy, arrives to meet Raqqa's council in northern Syria [AFP]
With the Islamic State group facing the inevitable loss of all the territories it seized in Syria, questions are being asked about the future of the US military presence presently assisting Kurdish-led forces battling the militants.

Talal Silo, the spokesman of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Reuters he believed the Americans would remain in the country - since they have a "strategic interest" in doing so.

Silo anticipates "military, economic and political agreements in the long term between the leadership of the northern areas [of Syria]… and the US administration".

The US has approximately 1,000 military personnel in Syria's north-eastern Kurdish-held territories, including Marines providing artillery support to the SDF alongside Army Rangers and other special operations forces. The Pentagon has also established a network of airfields there.

Silo argues that the US is "not giving support just to leave".

"America is not providing all this support for free... Maybe there could be an alternative to their base in Turkey," Silo said of the US airfields in Syria, while referring to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.

The US has, over the years, found usage of this enormous strategically important south-eastern Turkish airbase unreliable at best. This remains true today, given Ankara's staunch opposition to the Kurdish authorities in Syria and its frustration with the US for working with them - as evidenced by their public disclosure of US military positions in Syria last month.
America is not providing all this support for free...

The airfields in Syria will unlikely host US fighter jets any time soon. They could probably, however, enable US forces to operate Apache helicopter gunships and sturdy A-10 Warthog attack planes in the near future. Such aircraft could shield the SDF from any land-based threats if need be.

The Kurdish-led SDF has always welcomed American forces in their region to assist them against IS. US airpower was crucial in enabling the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to fight off the infamous IS assault on the Kurdish border city of Kobane in late 2014.

Kurdish forces hold the Afrin, Jazira and Kobane provinces, in which they are seeking a degree of autonomy - despite strong opposition from Turkey

Since then, they have gone on the offensive against the militants with close American backing and formed the SDF coalition with Arab and other forces committed to defeating the militants. In doing so, they have secured large swathes of territory in northeast Syria - and this summer have taken more than half of the city of Raqqa, IS' de-facto "capital".

Silo's comments come after some doubts were raised about the prolonging of the US presence in Syria, and even fears that after the IS threat is removed the US will abandon the Kurds and their allies, possibly leaving them victim to the regime.

"[The United States] will not defend the Kurds against [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad's forces," declared Robert Ford, the outspoken former US ambassador to Syria, in June.

"What we're doing with the Kurds is not only politically stupid, but immoral."

Another US official also told The Wall Street Journal that after the SDF removes IS from Raqqa, it will inevitably fall back under regime control.

The Damascus regime, the official said, has "a natural home-field advantage and have a way of getting back in. We won't be in Raqqa in 2020, but the regime will be there."

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said if the Kurds face threats after the conclusion of the Raqqa operation the Americans would be willing to supply them with equipment.

"If they have another fight and they need, you know, the light trucks that they've been using… we'll get them that," Mattis said in June.
The Trump administration has also relinquished American support of anti-Assad rebels in Syria and supports the end of the Syrian war through the imposition of de-escalation zones

If the Syrian war winds down, a post-IS American presence in northeast Syria makes a degree of sense to many here. The Americans, like the Russians, and the Syrian political opposition in exile, do not want to see the fragmentation of the Syrian state.

The Trump administration has also relinquished American support of anti-Assad rebels in Syria and supports the end of the Syrian war through the imposition of de-escalation zones initially negotiated between Turkey, Russia and Iran.

The Russians now have an agreement with Damascus to retain its air and naval base in Syria for another five decades. Their bases in Syria, coupled with the US airfields in Syria Kurdistan, could, through effective ad-hoc coordination, enforce ceasefires and counter Islamist groups excluded from thouse ceasefires, such as the remnants of IS in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, and Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra FRont) in Syria's north-western Idlib province.

In an April piece in Al-Monitor, journalist Anton Mardasov concluded by suggesting that "Russian and US troops may act as guarantors of a Syrian-style Dayton Agreement" - referring to the deal which brought an end to the bloody three-and-a-half year Bosnian War in 1995.

Consequently the military infrastructure the Americans have been putting in place in northeast Syria may well remain in place for the foreseeable future - and serve objectives other than destroying the Islamic State group.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon