Risks and rewards: Will the US military stay in Syria?

Risks and rewards: Will the US military stay in Syria?
6 min read
09 October, 2018
Despite President Trump's reservations, the answer is 'probably', reports Paul Iddon.
The US-backed SDF has been fighting the Islamic State group in north-east Syria [AFP]

The United States will likely retain a troop presence in Syria's Kurdish-administered northeast for the indefinite future. 

"We feel [the Americans] are more committed now," said Aldar Xelil, a senior Syrian Kurdish leader.

"There's attention, a political file and follow-up beyond the realm of fighting [the Islamic State group]," he elaborated. "At the very least, before there was no talk of this at all."

This is a notable development considering earlier this year President Trump expressed his intention to withdraw from Syria at the earliest possible opportunity.

Approximately 2,000 US troops are backing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their efforts to defeat Islamic State group fighters. Having forced IS from its de-facto capital city, Raqqa, the SDF are facing the final few small IS strongholds in Syria's eastern Deir ez-Zour province.

For the Americans, keeping troops in Syria after IS' battlefield defeat is both risky and beneficial.


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem recently reiterated the regime's opposition to foreign forces in the country, particularly troops from the US, France and Turkey - which operate openly in Syria without the consent of Damascus.

"We therefore consider any forces operating on Syrian territory without an explicit request from the Syrian government occupying forces and they will be dealt with accordingly," he told the United Nations.

On May 31 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said if negotiations with the US-backed SDF failed to reach an agreement he would resort to military force. He said he would do so "with the Americans, or without the Americans", a clear reference to the US military presence in the country's northeast.

While the SDF have opened negotiations with Damascus, no agreement has been reached. The group has less reason to fear a serious Syrian attack so long as the Americans, despite what Assad may claim, retain a presence in their part of the country.

Turkey also opposes the US presence in Syria, since Washington is supporting the Syrian Kurds against IS

US troops have previously been nearly entangled in skirmishes between Washington's Kurdish allies and Damascus. In August 2016, Syrian Kurdish forces engaged in a shootout with pro-regime militiamen in the Kurdish city of Hasakah. In the middle of these clashes, two Syrian air force bombers attacked Kurdish positions, their bombs falling near US special forces in the city.

When Syrian bombers returned to the area the next day US Air Force F-22 Raptors swooped in to intercept them and successfully prevented a follow-up attack without incident.

The US is bolstering Kurdish forces holding the north-east regions of Kobane and Jazira; Turkey has already advanced into Afrin and Idlib

In addition to the Syrian regime, Turkey also opposes the US presence in Syria, since Washington is supporting the Syrian Kurds against IS. Ankara invariably argues that these Syrian Kurds are inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with which it has been at war for more than three decades. 

On April 25, 2017, Turkey bombed a Syrian Kurdish headquarters in northeast Syria. As with the Hasakah attack the bombs landed near US troops who were not given sufficient advance warning by Ankara. Turkey remained unapologetic for the attack and affirmed it reserved the right to carry out similar attacks in the future. 

Ankara's incursion into the isolated northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin earlier this year temporarily saw the SDF divert manpower from operations against IS to try, ultimately in vain, to repel the invaders. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month vowed to launch another operation east of the Euphrates River in northeast Syria, which would likely cause another destabilising conflict in that region.

On October 1, US troops were just three miles away from another sudden, and unexpected, impact. This time Iran was the culprit. In retaliation for the Ahvaz attack on September 22, Tehran fired six long-range ballistic missiles near the border town of Abu Kamal.

Iran also opposes the continued US presence in Syria, where it is firmly allied with Damascus, and openly said this latest strike was another warning to the US and its regional allies.

All of these incidents demonstrate the risks the US will have to contemplate in the future of its Syria deployment, since similar, if not more serious, incidents are inevitably going to occur again.


While the risks are significant there are benefits for the US keeping its presence in Syria. For one, a relatively small number of US troops is enough to efficiently deter Damascus and Ankara from conquering northeast Syria and destroying or dismantling the SDF.

The SDF is a sizeable, battle-hardened fighting force that Washington will certainly need again to combat either an IS resurgence or the emergence of a similar group. 

If the SDF is destroyed by Ankara or Damascus following any American withdrawal then the next time a dangerous militant group emerges from that area the US will be back to square one. Additionally, that corner of Syria is relatively safe - compared with the rest of the country - and would doubtlessly become plunged into chaos and instability were the US to pull out.

Aliza Marcus, a journalist and expert on Turkish and Kurdish affairs, who has written an extensive history of the PKK, recently penned an editorial for The New York Times in which she argued for a continued US presence in the region to safeguard its stability.

"With assistance and recognition, the United States can salvage part of Syria, give the Kurds the backing they need to demand a fair settlement from Damascus and retain a base for future operations against violent extremists," Marcus wrote.

The idea that they should be subjected to an attack by their bitter enemies, the Turks, or by the murderous Assad regime - I think anything should be done to try to prevent that

MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, an ardent critic of US foreign policy for many decades, also argued in favour of a prolonged US deployment.

"In my opinion, it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Kurdish areas," Chomsky stated in a recent interview.

"They have the one part of Syria which is succeeding in sustaining a functioning society with many decent elements," he elaborated. "And the idea that they should be subjected to an attack by their bitter enemies, the Turks, or by the murderous Assad regime - I think anything should be done to try to prevent that."

Chomsky also argued that past US policies in the region, which saw atrocities leveled against Kurds, "does not change the fact that now the United States could, with a relatively small presence, deter attacks against the Kurds in Syria, which could destroy the one part of Syria that is actually functioning in a decent fashion".

While President Donald Trump is ideologically opposed to a "globalist, world-police" role for the US military, there remain moral and practical reasons for the Pentagon to continue a long-term deployment in north-east Syria, at least until some future time when Assad is no longer in power in Damascus and the people of Syria can again govern their own country.

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

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon