In Syria, US Commanders Hold the Line — and Wait for Biden
Troops maintain the status quo amid a counterterrorism success-turned-frozen war.
NEAR DERIK, SYRIA — On a bright blue afternoon in February, troops from the Louisiana National Guard load into up-armored vehicles in America’s true forgotten war. The trucks rumble out of a bare-bones base in the seeming middle of nowhere, heading to a small village named Hemzebeg on what the military refers to as a “presence patrol.”
Several weeks earlier, an apocryphal meme claiming President Joe Biden had “invaded” Syria proliferated across right-wing social media channels. In reality, U.S. forces here are carrying out a mission inherited across three administrations that, at least for now, seems poised to continue in perpetuity. But the popularity of the online conspiracy made clear that for some Americans, the roughly 900 troops former President Donald Trump bequeathed Biden are lost in the backlands of a frozen conflict, out of sight and out of mind.
American special operations forces here are prosecuting the fight against what’s left of ISIS. They are supported by conventional troops like those in Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, whose patrols are keeping the roads safe and clear.
The vehicles pass lonely pump jacks and herds of poorly-looking sheep. Children run out of small, low-slung concrete buildings in tiny hamlets, and the gunner throws down handfuls of Jolly Ranchers. Sometimes, men with inscrutable faces stand and watch them pass, expressionless. The patrol passes a pickup truck with a sheeted machine gun mounted in the bed, a so-called technical of the sort that has become the staple of irregular warfare across the globe. “That gun is bigger than mine,” the gunner remarks mildly, peering over the barrel of his .50-caliber machine gun. “Just hope he stays friendly.” No way to know who it belongs to. There doesn’t appear to be anyone nearby, just a long-haired collie dog that is probably white underneath all the dirt.
The last unit to rotate through here regularly passed Russian patrols. On one occasion, the Russian convoy ran the Americans off of the road. But officials say that kind of interaction has dropped off steeply in recent months. Col. Scott Desormeaux, who leads the 256th, said he has seen “a small uptick in the amount of IEDs” — evidence of ISIS — but for the most part, this part of Syria is as sleepy as it comes in the middle of a civil war and a low-level terrorist insurgency.
Sometimes, U.S. troops on patrol still have rocks and fruit thrown at them. But it’s hard to know how much of that is a political statement and how much of it is just bored kids doing what bored kids do in country towns all over the world.
A War Within a War
For many military officials, Syria is a bonafide counterterrrorism success story.
As ISIS claimed huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2015, the Obama administration started offering light arms and support to the Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. By 2016, U.S. special operations forces were embedding with the SDF in the fight against ISIS and the partnership had ballooned into a formal train-advise-and-assist mission. With U.S. assistance, the SDF reclaimed Syrian territory from ISIS — including in a bloody battle for the city of Raqqa in the early days of Trump’s administration in which thousands of SDF fighters but no Americans were killed.
It was a war nested within a war. For the Americans, determined not to become embroiled in Syria’s kaleidoscopic civil war, the goal was the defeat of ISIS. By most metrics, they have all but achieved it. Today, the area of northeast Syria controlled by the SDF is relatively stable. Although there are pockets of ISIS fighters still active inside the country — in particular in ungoverned areas like the Badia Desert — they lack the ability to reclaim territory. Senior U.S. military officials describe what’s left of the group as a low-level insurgency that has more in common with a criminal gang than the transnational terrorist group that once controlled territory the size of Britain.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean U.S. troops are coming home any time soon. Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, who commands the U.S.-led counter-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria, said the group is still able to establish training camps and other infrastructure inside the Badia Desert, where the United States doesn’t operate, and is still capable of carrying out the occasional high-profile attack.
“I think their ability to reemerge is extremely low right now, but the potential is always there, because they don't have a lot of pressure put on them” in the Badia Desert, Calvert said.
Military officials insist that their sole mission in Syria is the enduring defeat of ISIS. U.S. advisers and funds are carrying out a host of jobs geared at promoting local stability and preventing the group’s resurgence, including helping shore up makeshift SDF-run prisons holding thousands of ISIS fighters. They are also grappling with the humanitarian and security crisis brewing inside the sprawling al Hol camp that holds 65,000 ISIS wives and children.
But the dizzying nature of the broader Syria problem combined with the muddled messaging surrounding Trump’s controversial, and ultimately failed, efforts to extricate U.S. forces has made a clean U.S. counterterrorism mission next to impossible.
“The level of complexity in Syria is immense, and is probably one of the most complex environments I have seen in the 33 years that I've been serving,” Calvert said.
The Syrian civil war, propped up by Iranian and Russian involvement, has settled into a protracted stalemate. The SDF controls a semi-autonomous region in the northeast — the areas where the U.S. operates — and with the exception of a few key strategic pockets, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime controls the rest. Turkish troops and anti-Assad forces also control some territory, including on the border with Turkey and surrounding a U.S.-declared deconfliction zone near the tri-border with Jordan and Iraq, where the United States also keeps a base.
In practice, executing even a narrow counterterrorism mission means involvement in the broader political environment in Syria. Calvert and others praised efforts by the SDF to establish functioning government in the areas they control, for example — a recognition that stability degrades ISIS’s ability to recruit from local communities, but also a tacit acknowledgement of the SDF’s political legitimacy in the broader conflict. The U.S. military also routinely uses official channels to deconflict its movements with the Russian military, not only to keep its own forces safe but to ensure the SDF fighters working with the United States are able to keep their focus on the fight against ISIS.
“The more we can support the SDF in getting after ISIS, the less they feel vulnerable or distracted by the actions of either the regime, the Russians, or the Turks to the north, to make sure that they can still keep on looking after the detainees and al Hol, because they've only got finite forces to do all this,” said British Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Copsey, the deputy commander for strategy in the counter-ISIS mission.
Further complicating matters is the Turkish position that the SDF are terrorists, the pretext for a 2019 invasion that destabilized the northeast zone and left confusion in its wake about the U.S. mission in Syria.
Faced with the impending Turkish invasion, Trump abruptly announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, claiming that ISIS was “defeated.” It quickly became one of the most explosive foreign policy issues of his new presidency: Senior GOP leaders argued that it was a shameful abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies and ceded strategic influence to Russia and Iran. Trump ultimately acquiesced to keeping troops there — but only in order to “take” Syrian oil, something commanders on the ground say never happened.
“Yeah, that's not what we're doing,” Calvert said. Although some petroleum infrastructure controlled by the SDF falls under U.S. patrol routes — and is therefore nested in the broader area security mission — the U.S. military is not directly controlling those facilities, he and other military officials said.
“Us sitting on top of it, securing it, it's not what we're doing. It's not what we should be doing,” Calvert said.
Because of geopolitical jockeying by other regional powers to establish influence in Syria, many see the U.S. presence there as an important strategic counterweight to Russian and Iranian influence in the region. For others, including Calvert, it’s a way to maintain the status quo while diplomats work out a negotiated settlement to the war.
“As long as we can maintain the status quo in the northeast, that gives us the opportunity through political dialogue with all the players to drive an acceptable solution for Syria as a whole,” said Calvert.
But how long that state of affairs will continue is anybody’s guess.
What Will Biden Do?
Biden is under political pressure to end America’s so-called forever wars, a broad and ill-defined concept that both he and Trump rallied around on the campaign trail. Support for ending the war in Afghanistan has attracted bipartisan support and Biden is currently wrestling with whether to meet a deadline set by the Trump administration to remove all U.S. troops by May 1.
But he faces far less public pressure on Syria, a conflict that it appears at least part of the country thinks Trump already ended.
His administration is reviewing the U.S. presence there as part of a broader effort to determine how best to shift American focus from the Middle East to Asia. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said recently that the future of the U.S. policy in Syria “is the one question I got from everybody.”
Militarily, McKenzie said in a January interview with Defense One, he can maintain the status quo indefinitely — ”as long as it’s in the interest of the United States to do it.”
“It's a posture that gives us good force protection, this a posture that allows us to help our SDF partners,” he said. “What is going to mean at a higher level would be for someone else to answer, not me.”
The original source of the rumor that Biden had “invaded” Syria appears to be a local news report of an American convoy crossing from Iraq into Syria, something that happens routinely as personnel and supplies are shuttled in and out of the country. (The precise number of U.S. troops in Syria changes day to day.) Within a few days of the report, right-wing media personalities were citing it to claim the false invasion.
“Within 24 hours of his swearing-in ceremony, Joe Biden invaded Syria with a convoy of US troops and choppers carrying more than 200 soldiers,” a Facebook account called “Occupy Republicans” wrote in a Jan. 22 Facebook post.
Then Charlie Kirk, a verified account on Twitter and a frequent peddler of misinformation, wrote a tweet repeating the false claim. It was shared more than 30,000 times on Twitter and had more than 25,000 interactions on Instagram and 17,000 interactions on large, public Facebook pages, according to CrowdTangle, a monitoring service owned by Facebook that helps track how content spreads online.
But the real number of impressions of the post received is likely “a level of magnitude higher” than even what those publicly-available figures can capture, according to Melinda McClure Haughey, a social media researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. CrowdTangle only gives “a glimpse” into trends on Facebook and Instagram because it only shows activity on public pages, she said.
“The activity that happens on private pages and in private groups is not accounted for,” Haughey said in an email. “We know that these private, more personal spaces are where misinformation thrives.”
In the village of Hemzebeg, the Louisiana 256th are treated warmly. 1st Lt. Samantha Stone meets with a handful of village elders while her troops hand out candy and kick around soccer balls with a herd of grinning kids. She asks them if they have any security concerns. Have you seen any ISIS here? Do you feel safe with us here?
We feel safe with you here, she is told through a translator. But we don’t know if you’re staying here or if you’re just visiting or if you’re going to come back again.
The men want to talk to her about Turkey — there have been local rumors President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considering invading Sinjar and Derik — but Stone keeps the conversation focused on ISIS and promises to keep driving through Hemzebeg from time to time.
Senior leaders and service members alike say the relationship with the SDF, damaged when Trump withdrew U.S. troops in advance of the Turkish incursion, has recovered. There are SDF fighters on every patrol, although they ride in their own pickup trucks and it is the Americans that lead the engagement in Hemzebeg.
We lost some places because of you, Stone is told by the villagers. But Erdogan is the real threat, the men say, and we need you.
She is invited in for tea, but declines. If the convoy is to be back on the small, isolated base before dark, they must leave now. Another patrol will head out the next day.
“It's remained the same,” Calvert said, asked if he had received new guidance from Washington after Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. “The policies in Syria are still the same.”