Why does the US still have forces in Syria?

US forces have targeted a base operated by Iranian allies in eastern Syria after an attack near a US base last week.

US soldiers in Syria in front of an armoured vehicle
US soldiers stand guard in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, on January 27, 2022 [Baderkhan Ahmad/AP Photo]

The United States’ air attacks on targets it says were associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in eastern Syria have put the spotlight once again on the continued presence of US forces in the country.

In recent years, Washington has pulled back from its previously more extensive role in the country, but has stayed on in a limited capacity in some areas, ostensibly to fight ISIL (ISIS) and limit Iran’s influence in the country.

The eastern Syria raids announced on Wednesday appear to be part of the latter, with Central Command spokesperson Colonel Joe Buccino saying the strikes “were necessary to protect and defend US personnel”, and a response to an August 15 attack targeting US forces that was allegedly launched by Iranian-backed militias.

When did the US militarily involve itself in Syria?

  • Despite indicating its support for the Syrian opposition shortly after the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the US’s first major military involvement in Syria was against ISIL.
  • In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air raids against ISIL in Syria, as part of a campaign it was already conducting in Iraq.
  • The US contributed approximately 2,000 soldiers to the coalition, and in October 2015 supported the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group largely made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

Has the US attacked the Syrian government?

  • Despite President Barack Obama’s talk of a “red line” should the al-Assad government use chemical weapons in Syria, it was only under President Donald Trump that the first direct attacks against the Syrian government were conducted.
  • After a chemical attack killed 88 people in Idlib province, US forces fired cruise missiles in April 2017 at a base believed to have been where the chemical attack was launched from. A US-led attack was also launched in April 2018 after a chemical attack in the opposition-held town of Douma.
  • In addition to the SDF, the US has covertly armed and trained Syrian opposition forces, although that was severely reduced in 2017, and limited only to groups directly fighting ISIL.

Has there been any pushback against the US role in Syria?

  • The Syrian government has constantly expressed its opposition to the US role in Syria, and demanded US forces withdraw. Al-Assad’s main backer, Russia, has also called for the US to leave.
  • Turkey has also made clear its opposition to US support for the YPG. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the US and the European Union.
  • The announcement of a Turkish military operation against the YPG in northern Syria led to the withdrawal of some US troops in October 2019.

Where are US forces currently located in Syria?

  • Some US forces are still located in the SDF-controlled areas of northeastern Syria, such as Hassakeh and Raqqa provinces.
  • Since 2016, the US has also controlled al-Tanf base, in a remote area of Syria, near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. The US presence in the base was agreed upon with Russia, and is part of a 55km (34 miles) “deconfliction zone”, which US and allied forces patrol. Russia has since called on the US to withdraw from al-Tanf.
  • There are still approximately 900 US soldiers in Syria.

What are the US’s main goals in Syria?

  • Speaking last year, Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said the US had four main objectives in Syria: to reduce violence, maintain military pressure on ISIL, address Syria’s humanitarian crisis, and to support Israel.
  • The US has conducted raids against senior ISIL and al-Qaeda leaders in Syria, including ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Civilians have also been killed in these attacks, according to locals.
  • “The official goal of the Americans in Syria is defeating ISIS and ensuring that ISIS does not return to the areas that have been liberated,” said Mzahem Alsaloum, a Syrian analyst. “But the presence of the Americans is also important to cut [Iranian] military and smuggling supply lines [from Iraq] … if the Iranians took al-Tanf, there would be a direct link between Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.”

Are US forces likely to stay in Syria?

  • The US government has maintained the importance of staying in Syria to confront ISIL and Iran – even under Trump, who said he would withdraw US forces from Syria, some have remained.
  • US officials told Al Jazeera last year that the SDF had been delivered “assurances” that Washington would not be withdrawing its forces, unlike in Afghanistan.
  • According to Alsaloum, the future of the US presence in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf needs to be looked at separately. “With regards to al-Tanf, if there is a serious nuclear deal agreement, or if there is a deal with regards to the US hostages held by the Syrian regime, the withdrawal may be on the table,” Alsaloum told Al Jazeera. “As for [northeastern Syria], there may be a withdrawal if the Republicans come to power – if Trump returns there may be surprises.”
Source: Al Jazeera