Biden Leaves Afghanistan, Pulls Back in Iraq, But U.S. Troops Fight On in Syria

This article originally appeared in Newsweek on August 5, 2021.
By Tom O’Connor

Just over six months into his tenure, President Joe Biden has overseen the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and pulled back the Pentagon‘s mission in Iraq amid domestic and regional pressure.

But in Syria, the U.S. military remains with no discernable exit plan.

“Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are three completely separate issues and should not be conflated,” a senior Biden administration official told Newsweek. “On Syria, we do not anticipate any changes right now to the mission or the footprint.”

And that’s because the administration says the strategy is working as is.

“As a reminder, in Syria, we are supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS,” the official said. “That has been quite successful, and that’s something that we’ll continue.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces are one of several factions entrenched in Syria’s decade-long civil war. The largely Kurdish-led militia has received the Pentagon’s backing since 2015, about a year after former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, rallied a multinational coalition to fight the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS.

Around the same time that the U.S.-Syrian Democratic Forces partnership was established, Russia also joined the fight against ISIS, intervening directly on behalf of a separate campaign led by the Syrian government, its Iranian ally and militias aligned with them.

The parallel offensives in Syria eventually achieved the dismantlement of the self-styled caliphate violently erected by ISIS, but the years since have seen little disengagement among the top two rival factions that fought the jihadis. The U.S.-led coalition pursued a similar anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq, and did so in collaboration with Baghdad.NEWSWEEK SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS >

Unlike the Pentagon-partnered Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in neighboring Iraq, both of which also received assistance from Iran, however, Damascus and its Syrian Arab Army consider the U.S. military presence a foreign occupation and demand an immediate departure. And while Biden did announce late last month an end to the “combat” mission in Iraq as self-styled resistance factions called for U.S. troops to leave, no withdrawal was announced and there’s even less indication they would be leaving Syria anytime soon.

Politically, the Biden administration has outlined several key objectives for the country.

“As far as our broader U.S. strategy for Syria, we have identified key priorities: mitigating human suffering, expanding humanitarian access, sustaining the campaign against ISIS, and making clear our intolerance toward human rights abuses by the regime and other actors in the Syrian conflict,” the senior administration official said.

And while policymakers have sought to distinguish the U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led coalition operating there has defined similar goal sets for the missions in both countries.

“The Coalition’s mission remains, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, and in conjunction with our partner forces — the SDF, the ISF and Peshmerga — to defeat Daesh and its remnants in designated areas of Syria and Iraq and set conditions for regional stability, security and economic prosperity,” U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto, spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told Newsweek.

Department of Defense spokesperson Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Anton T. Semelroth also spoke to the primary purpose of the U.S. military footprint in Syria.

“The United States will maintain its military presence in eastern Syria to execute our sole mission in Syria: the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Semelroth told Newsweek. “U.S. and Coalition forces continue to work by, with, and through vetted local partner forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to achieve this mission.”

And as for U.S. Central Command, tasked with overseeing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, spokesperson U.S. Army Major John J. Rigsbee too discussed why U.S. troops remain in Syria’s energy resource-rich northeast.

“The DoD mission in Syria is to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Rigsbee told Newsweek. “As part of the Defeat-ISIS effort, the SDF, with the support of U.S. forces, secures critical petroleum infrastructure in northeast Syria to deny ISIS access to critical resources and revenue that could be used to buy arms and conduct operations. Syrian oil is for the Syrian people and we remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.”

Three Administrations, Three Approaches

But Damascus, along with its allies Moscow and Tehran, have blamed Washington for perpetuating Syria’s woes through economic and military coercion.

Shortly after Biden came to office in January, Syria’s permanent mission to the United Nations explained the country’s outstanding quarrels with the U.S. as inherited by Biden from his two predecessors, Obama, who first sought to topple Assad by funding insurgents before offering assistant to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and former President Donald Trump, who oversaw the conclusion of the active combat phase of the anti-ISIS campaign and then called for a withdrawal of troops, but later settled on focusing U.S. military presence near oil and gas fields.

“The reason for the existing disputes with the United States of America is the policies of previous American administrations that include: interference in the Syrian internal affairs, occupation of territories in the Syrian Arab Republic, stealing its natural resources, and supporting separatist militias and armed terrorist entities in Syria,” Syria’s permanent mission to the U.N. told Newsweek at the time.

Should the Biden administration remedy these conditions, the Syrian mission said it would be possible to renew relations severed in the early days of the war, when Washington accused Damascus of perpetrating mass human rights abuses.

“In the case that the US administration is ready to abandon these policies,” the mission said, “Syria does not object to meaningful and purposeful communications far from the conditions that the previous administration was trying to impose on Syria with regard to the situation in Syria and the region.”

But the White House has since then only doubled down on pressures against Syria as the country suffers from an economic crisis exacerbated by the conflict and COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions against a number of Syrian individuals, institutions and entities accused of human rights abuses, most of them associated with the government, but also including a rebel group and two of its top officials.

“The world must renew its shared resolve to promote the dignity and human rights of all Syrians,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement at the time. “We urge the international community to join our calls for a nationwide ceasefire, the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained, and for information about the fate of the missing. The Assad regime must know that these steps are critical to any lasting peace or economic prosperity in Syria.”

He said the Biden administration sought to soften the humanitarian blow of sanctions, but would nonetheless pursue those deemed guilty of human rights abuses in Syria.

“Even as we work to make sure our sanctions do not impede humanitarian aid delivery, early recovery or humanitarian resilience programs, or COVID 19 relief,” Blinken said, “today’s action makes clear that the United States will not forget the victims of human rights abuses in Syria and will use appropriate tools to target and single out those responsible, regardless of the perpetrator.”

The top U.S. diplomat dug in further Wednesday in response to renewed unrest in Syria’s southwestern Daraa province, where Syria’s turmoil first erupted 10 years ago amid mass anti-government demonstrations and a subsequent state crackdown. Three years after Syria’s armed forces retook the city from opposition groups, negotiations regarding the status of reconciled rebels broke down last week, resulting in a new military offensive quickly condemned by Washington.

“We condemn the Assad regime’s brutal assault on Dara’a and call for an immediate end to the violence, which has killed civilians and displaced thousands suffering from shortages of food and medication,” Blinken tweeted. “We reiterate calls for a nationwide ceasefire in line with UNSCR 2254.”

Dead-End Diplomacy

This U.N. Security Council resolution, which calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a political solution to ultimately end the conflict, is one of the few points of international consensus regarding the war in Syria. How to enforce it, however, remains an area of contention.

This divergence of views among belligerents and the impact on U.S. policy were partially addressed Tuesday by the Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve in the latest assessment of U.S. operations in Syria, where the State Department was cited as saying the Biden administration would not “normalize or upgrade [U.S.] diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor will [the United States] provide reconstruction assistance to Syria until we see irreversible progress on the political track.”

As for what the U.S. was looking to see in Syria, the State Department said it “seeks to advance a durable political solution to the Syrian conflict that ‘represents the will of all Syrians,’ the enduring defeat of ISIS, the successful reintegration of displaced persons, and the repatriation of captured terrorist fighters from countries other than Iraq and Syria,” according to the report.

But the report also cited the State Department as saying there had been “no changes in progress” toward achieving such a political outcome in the country.

Successive rounds of peace talks sponsored by the U.N. have made little progress, even as Russia, Iran and Turkey have stepped up to sponsor talks and arrange ceasefires. And none of these international efforts include the Syrian Democratic Forces or much Kurdish representation at all.

An Axis Against U.S. Military Presence

Prospects for peace were further complicated by the lingering presence of ISIS, which has stepped up attacks, especially across Syria’s vast central desert, where the group “has been able to utilize the difficult environment to find safe haven and conduct attacks despite persistent counterterrorism operations by regime forces and Coalition partners,” according to the Lead Inspector General report.

Al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras al-Din, based in the northwestern rebel-held Idlib province, has also recently claimed an attack against a bus carrying Syrian military personnel in Damascus.

Syria, Russia and Iran have responded to this militant threat by escalating their efforts to take on the jihadis, as the U.S. report noted.

But these three powers have also amplified calls to push U.S. troops out of Syria, which has been effectively divided into three main areas of control: the majority of land held by the government, roughly a third of the territory in the northeast in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces and partnered U.S. forces largely concentrated near oil and gas resources in the east, and enclaves held by rebels, many backed by Turkey, along the northern border.

U.S. forces additionally maintain a small garrison alongside partnered rebel forces in the southeastern desert region of Al-Tanf near the borders with Jordan and Iraq.

While the U.S. mission remains officially focused on ISIS, Biden has followed in Trump’s footsteps both by keeping U.S. troops deployed near oil and gas fields and by ordering strikes against Iran-aligned militias on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border in response to rocket attacks against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq. The most recent strikes conducted in June were followed by artillery attacks against U.S. personnel in eastern Syria and protests from Damascus.

Top U.S. ally Israel has for years conducted strikes against suspected Iran-linked positions in Syria, but the Pentagon has reserved the right for further action as well.

“The President has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel from attacks by Iran-backed groups,” Semelroth said. “The President twice has taken necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action to protect and defend U.S. forces in a manner designed to limit the risk of escalation and send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.”

Regionwide tensions with Iran were ignited by Trump’s 2018 decision to leave a nuclear deal negotiated three years earlier with Tehran and world powers, and later impose heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Biden has pursued negotiations geared toward reentering the accord, but has yet to do so amid successive rounds of talks in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Incidents have also emerged in Syria between U.S. and Russian forces, which both operate along overlapping lines of control across northeastern Syria and have accused one another of dangerous, unprofessional actions.

“The Coalition maintains air and ground deconfliction channels with the Russian military to protect our forces and reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation,” Semelroth said. “The United States continues to urge Russia to adhere to mutual deconfliction processes and not to take any provocative action.”

In a joint statement adopted last week, Russia and Syria criticized “the course of Western countries aimed at maintaining sanctions pressure on Damascus” and “an illegitimate stay in Syria of foreign military contingents, which impedes stabilization in occupied areas” as two of the key factors hampering Syria’s path to recovery and reconstruction.

Also frequently condemned is the U.S. focus on securing Syria’s oil and gas resources, something Damascus considers illicit theft of resources, and the Pentagon argues is part of the broader anti-ISIS strategy.

Echoing Rigsbee, Semelroth said that “Syrian oil is for the Syrian people; the United States does not own, control, or manage any of those resources, nor do we wish to.”

“As part of the effort to defeat ISIS, the SDF will continue to deny ISIS access to oil and gas revenue in northeast Syria, which it previously used to fund its terror campaign,” he added.

Caliphates and Crusaders

The Syrian Democratic Forces and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, have also defended the ongoing U.S. military presence across the self-ruling region known called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

“The U.S. military plays a critically important role in NE Syria, and the SDF is a key ally of the United States in the region,” Sinam Mohamad, representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the U.S., told Newsweek.

She warned that a U.S. exit would only exacerbate the challenges faced by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the people living under their control, allowing a chance for ISIS to resurge.

“A U.S. withdrawal will create both a security and political vacuum that is dangerous to both the AANES and the US interest,” Mohamad said. “U.S. forces on the ground will be pivotal to complete the task of defeating ISIS, which continues to pose a real threat to the security and stability of the region.”

While ISIS’ standing army has been largely decimated, she said the group remains active in the Syrian badia, the mostly government-held desert area spanning the center of the country, as well as in the northwestern region under the control of the rebel Syrian National Army, which she called “a radical Islamist group like ISIS.”

ISIS also remains present at the northeastern Al-Hol displaced persons camp guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, despite recent efforts to rout active supporters of the jihadi organization.

“U.S.-SDF security cooperation continues on a daily basis,” Mohamad said. “Should U.S. forces depart Syria, ISIS will only get stronger again and pose a danger not only to Syrians but to Europeans and Americans as well.”

Both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government have taken credit for keeping at bay the threat of ISIS, which has conducted attacks across the globe, including designated “crusader” states in the West that joined the U.S.-led coalition.

And with a common foe in both ISIS and the array of rebel groups operating in the north, multiple attempts have been made to foster such cooperation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian military, but talks have repeatedly fallen through over opposing views of how the country should be governed.

The Syrian Democratic Forces desire limited autonomy in the northeast, while Damascus seeks to reinstitute central government control across the country and has vowed to do so through diplomacy, or force, if necessary.

Friends and Foes Unfamiliar

In the absence of negotiations at present, sporadic clashes have broken out between the two sides in recent months. Still, among Syria’s warring factions, the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces are not only the most powerful, but arguably the least apart in terms of their differing visions for the country.

“Presently, the SDC is not conducting any talks with Damascus,” Mohamad said. “The SDC is not opposed to a dialogue with Damascus, the mutual goal of which should be a political solution for Syria.”

While Moscow has set out to sponsor such efforts, Washington has remained largely silent on any dealings with Damascus, an element that would likely be key to any future arrangement.

“The SDC is open to both American and Russian diplomacy to that end,” Mohamad said. “Both powers can be helpful in reaching long-standing peace in Syria.”

Hopes for engagement between the U.S. and Syrian governments were expressed by one prominent independent Syrian politician who requested anonymity due to the sensitive geopolitical nature of the conflict.

“I personally believe that the best interests of the U.S. cannot be achieved with some circumstantial ties with some separatist militias nor with other illegal pay-to-hire gangs,” the politician told Newsweek, “but can only be achieved with a stable working relationship with the Syrian government.”

The politician, who has expressed criticism of both Assad’s administration and U.S. foreign policy toward Syria, felt Damascus also may not object to Washington’s long-term economic presence in the northeast if other issues were resolved.

“I am also sure that the Syrian government, whom the majority of Syrians support in the war against terrorism, doesn’t object to re-establish contractual oil digging agreements with U.S. companies,” the politician said.

“So why the tensions?” the politician asked. “And what do these tensions serve?!”