Keep US Troops in Syria
Four years after a terror attack claimed four U.S. lives, here’s a look at how the American presence remains useful.
It was nearly freezing that Syrian night. On a hard-dirt landing strip near the northeastern city of Kobani, I waited with two long lines of U.S. Special Forces soldiers behind a huge C-17 aircraft, its mighty engines temporarily stilled. Four flag-draped coffins were presently brought down the line and moved onboard. Each bore one of the four U.S. personnel, military and civilian, killed in the January 16, 2019, terror attack in a Manbij restaurant. Following a simple service, the aircraft lumbered away to be swallowed up in the dark Syrian sky.
Four years later, the U.S. still keeps troops in northeastern Syria, albeit about half as many as at the height of the fighting against ISIS. It is worth assessing whether that presence remains useful, given the risks and costs, and in light of the threat currently posed by the terror group.
A quick review of the troops’ achievements is helpful. In 2015, U.S. special operators were deployed to northeastern Syria to link up with our local partner on the ground—the Syrian Democratic Forces—and confront ISIS head-on. At the time, ISIS still had its so-called physical caliphate: control of tens of thousands of square miles and major cities in Syria, and more in Iraq. U.S. forces coordinated with SDF leaders and tactical units, provided air cover, and advised and assisted them in day-to-day military and counter-terrorism operations. The SDF’s motivated, disciplined forces supplied the man- and woman-power that physically confronted ISIS, defeating them in hard-fought campaigns in Kobane, Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir a-Zour province.
U.S. forces also helped the SDF to improve security at the makeshift prisons holding the 10,000 or so detained ISIS fighters captured on the battlefield or in regular joint counter-terrorism operations. U.S. Special Forces, led by Civil Affairs teams, helped the SDF restore local governance and security as displaced Syrian civilians returned to their homes and tried to rebuild lives in heavily damaged communities. They funded early recovery projects such as refurbishing schools and clinics and repairing damaged water systems and bridges.
And after the final ISIS surrender at Baghouz in March 2019, U.S. Special Forces elements shifted from combat support to training and other support for SDF-led counter-terrorism operations.
This nearly-eight-year effort has severely damaged ISIS’s leadership and command-and-control capabilities, but the group has been slowly rebuilding in Syria (as in Iraq). A small U.S. military presence is critical in this effort to maintain pressure on ISIS.
If the U.S. were to withdraw, this low-intensity but necessary effort against ISIS would likely fall apart, and relatively quickly. ISIS would certainly feel emboldened to intensify operations in Syria, an effort already evident in the past year, with several attempted suicide attacks, thus far successfully countered by an activist SDF. Arab-majority areas, with elements already resentful of the Kurdish-dominant SDF, would become increasingly de-stabilized, providing further oxygen for ISIS. A withdrawal would also remove a big reason that the SDF has continued to press this long-term anti-ISIS effort: the prospect of close cooperation with U.S. forces on the ground and policy alignment with Washington.
A U.S. withdrawal might also encourage a new invasion of northeastern Syria by Turkey, which considers the SDF part of a broader Kurdish national security threat. Should Turkey invade—without the brakes a U.S. military presence would entail, including diplomatic pushback against such plans and the likelihood of intense negotiations with an angered Washington—the SDF would likely collapse. It would certainly stop fighting ISIS.
Worst case, the withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead, as one analyst put it, to a “bloody free-for-all” in northeastern Syria. Such instability would also almost certainly jeopardize the substantial humanitarian assistance programs and early recovery projects that help Syrians return to their homes and provide food and shelter for the millions of displaced.
Some argue that the risks to U.S. troops in such a turbulent environment outweigh the benefits. But while SDF forces, both Kurdish and Arab, suffered some 10,000 deaths in the fight against ISIS, U.S. combat fatalities have been fewer than a dozen over a seven-year deployment. While there is risk, as the horrific Manbij bombing makes clear, the benefits of a small U.S. force, supporting a partner-led effort to keep CT pressure on ISIS, are clear and compelling. The tiny U.S. military footprint, and associated financial costs, are negligible, compared to the gargantuan deployment and investment made in Afghanistan over the past decade, or to the costs that the U.S. would incur if it were forced to take on a fully reconstituted ISIS.
Broader policy goals for Syria, such as the need for a comprehensive political settlement, have regularly been cited by U.S. officials as ancillary justification for our continued troop presence. Some argue that with Assad having “won the war,” this justification for our military presence flips and actually provides a reason for withdrawing them. On the contrary, those forces represent diplomatic leverage in the discussions to come over the future of Syria. It’s true that layers of U.S. economic sanctions against the Assad regime, imposed over the past decade, probably offer the U.S. more leverage. However, given the scrutiny the sanctions have come under as the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people has increased in the past few years, that type of economic leverage is being viewed as increasingly problematic. Our military presence does not raise these humanitarian issues. Finally, our presence also blocks Russian consolidation of its military mission in Syria, undercutting one of the key sources of Moscow’s surprisingly resilient prestige in the region and hence lending support to our Ukraine policy efforts.
Given the vital counter-ISIS task these troops continue to perform, the multiple indirect benefits to a range of U.S. policy interests, and the relatively low costs, the Biden team has gotten it right so far in sustaining that presence. While it’s true the administration has not articulated an end-game for efforts in the northeast, the policy benefits of our military presence continue to accrue. For Syria, until the broader situation clarifies, that should be enough.