Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.
In late March 2019, the U.S. and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces made a historic announcement: After months of combat, the Islamic State's last sliver of territory in the dusty Syrian hamlet of Baghouz was finally recaptured. The mass surrender of Islamic State fighters and the elimination of ISIS' territorial caliphate was the culmination of more than four years of U.S. airstrikes and ground operations from Kurdish and Arab factions.
Sixteen months after that announcement was made, hundreds of U.S. troops remain deployed in northeastern Syria, a delicate portion of the war-plagued country that hosts an alphabet soup of forces, including Turkish and Russian troops, Syrian-allied militias, Kurdish forces and remnants of the defunct ISIS caliphate.
With so many forces in close proximity, incidents are bound to happen. Some have resulted in significant armed confrontation -- the most serious occurring in 2018, when an hours-long standoff forced undermanned U.S. forces to disburse a much larger group of Russian mercenaries with air power.
Fortunately, no U.S. troops were killed or injured during the 2018 incident. Yet the longer U.S. personnel remain in Syria, the more likely an American military family will be on the receiving end of a condolence call.
Altercations between Washington and Moscow in Syria's northeast are becoming more frequent. On July 18, Brett McGurk, the former presidential envoy to the counter-ISIS coalition, tweeted a short video of Russian military vehicles refusing to allow two U.S. military carriers from continuing on their route. The latest incident comes after reports earlier in the year described a more assertive Russia testing the U.S. military's response by deliberately flying Russian aircraft into areas where U.S. personnel operate.
The Pentagon has a tendency to dismiss altercations between the U.S. and Russia as isolated incidents. As Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Ekman told reporters July 22, "It's very rare that a misunderstanding [between U.S. and Russian forces] triggers some higher emotions or some sort of harassment between the two sets of forces."
However, concentrating on the effectiveness of the deconfliction channel or how Moscow is behaving is akin to missing the forest for the trees. The issue of most concern to U.S policymakers should be why hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed in Syria in the first place, nearly a year and a half after ISIS' territorial caliphate was destroyed.
U.S. officials typically justify the ongoing American presence as a necessary tool to ensure ISIS doesn't resurrect itself in the area. But these same officials are reluctant to acknowledge that the United States is not the only power with an incentive to keep this terrorist group bottled up.
The Syrian government, the Kurds, Arab tribal forces, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Turkey may disagree on a litany of issues as to how Syria should be governed, who should fund the country's reconstruction, and whether Bashar al-Assad should stay or go. Each of them, though, is in agreement that preventing ISIS from barnstorming the Syrian and Iraqi countryside like it did in 2014 is in their own national security interest. Indeed, if there is a single security issue regional governments can agree on, it's depriving ISIS of space to operate and expand.
The foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C., continues to talk about Syria as if it were a critical node in a long, geopolitical game between Washington and its Russian and Iranian adversaries. The reality is far less dramatic: Syria, in its 10th year of war, is an economic basket case with very little to offer the United States. Syria's overall value is less than marginal to Washington or its ability to project power in the Middle East when required.
U.S.-Syrian relations were never particularly strong to begin with. The relationship has been characterized by hostility since at least the 1970s, so the highly plausible scenario of an Assad regime victory is less a consequential development in the region and more like a return to the status-quo ante. To argue that Iran and Russia have won in Syria not only discounts how difficult it will be for them to manage what has now become a complete and utter mess, it's also ignorant of history and ignores the fact that Tehran and Moscow have had a strategic relationship with Damascus for decades.
The benefits of maintaining a U.S troop presence in Syria are simply not worth the costs. With every day that passes, the U.S. travels one step further down the worn-out road of mission-creep. American policymakers meanwhile lose sight of the original objective. By former National Security Adviser John Bolton's own admission, U.S. policy in Syria is now more about containing Iranian power in the country than it is about fighting ISIS -- a change in mission that was neither debated on Capitol Hill nor given the serious policy deliberation it deserved.
There are too many instances in recent history when a successful completion of a mission transitions into an entirely new set of objectives. Just as the war in Afghanistan quickly descended into a trillion-dollar counterinsurgency and nation-building operation, U.S. military involvement in Syria is now prefaced on preventing Iran from reaping the supposed spoils -- spoils that include a bankrupt Syrian economy, $400 billion in infrastructure damage, a less-than-unified regime in Damascus dependent on foreign forces to sustain itself in power, and a Syrian currency that is losing a significant amount of its value.
The U.S. military isn't responsible for Syria's internal political or economic problems, all of which will likely take decades to resolve. The Trump administration should order American troops home before one more American life is lost.
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