The United States announced last week that it would send F22 fighter jets to Syria to counter threats from Russia, underscoring how the military mission that began with the aim of fighting the Islamic State has turned into a broader geopolitical struggle.
With the progress of the Syrian situation as it is, Washington’s opponents (Iran and Russia) have established themselves in Syria, at a time when the Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, is regaining friends in the region.
US forces arrived in northeastern Syria in 2015 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
By working side by side with the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), it repelled the Islamic State, after it invaded large areas of Syria and neighboring Iraq, until it was able to end its regional caliphate in 2019.
At the present time, the American forces are still supporting the SDF in northern and eastern Syria to confront ISIS cells, and provide them with advice and assistance.
Washington is also helping to guard about 10,000 imprisoned fighters and tens of thousands of ISIS family members—mostly women and children—who reside in the Roj and al Hol camps.
It’s been eight years since the US forces arrived in northeastern Syria, and critics says that Washington has never been closer to leaving than it was when the Islamic State was at its height.
“Northeast Syria is the definition of eternal war,” Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria said.
He added, “Because there are no casualties among the US forces, and because it’s not a particularly costly operation, and the United States stays on an annual basis”.
The official justification for the US presence is the Authorizations for Use of Military Force of 2001 and 2002 that Congress passed after the September 11 attacks.
Attempts by some members of Congress to stop the process in an effort to limit the president’s powers failed.
“900 American troops in Syria is a very low-cost way for us to kill the bad guys from the Islamic State and prevent Russia, Iran and Damascus from consolidating control of the country,” according to Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He added, “The United States is now facing two adversaries, Iran and Russia”.
For his part, Bassam Ishaq, a member of the Syria Democratic Council,” the political branch of the SDF, said, “The only reason why the United States can maintain a military presence in Syria is to say that it’s fighting terrorism, but the main goal now is to drain Iran and Russia”.
The Syrian army controls about two-thirds of the Syrian territory, with the support of Moscow and Tehran.
As the battles subsided, Assad turned his attention back to the regional periphery.
The devastating earthquake in Syria last February provided an opportunity for Assad to win over neighbors and Arab States.
These efforts culminated in a historic visit to Saudi Arabia in May, during which Syria was invited back to the Arab League.
Analysts believe that one of Assad’s long-term goals is to retake northeastern Syria, a historically fertile region that also includes some of Syria’s only oil fields, and that Damascus and its allies have stepped up their actions against the United States to achieve this goal.
US officials have reported an increase in Russian overflights of American bases this spring, and Washington is on guard against Iranian proxies.
The top commander of US forces in the region recently said that Iran had launched 78 attacks on US bases in Syria since January 2021.
“All indications indicate that Iranian factions are preparing for a more aggressive pattern of attack against the United States,” said Michael Knights, an expert on armed groups.
“They see an opportunity to expel the United States from northeastern Syria,” he said.
Last March, a kamikaze drone attacked a US base in al Hasakah, killing an American defense contractor and wounding six service members.
Knights added that the drone strike, which coincided with the time the facility’s radar, was lowered for maintenance, was particularly advanced, and noted that the attackers had local intelligence or Russian air support.
A report in June said that Iran, Syria and Russia are strengthening coordination to expel the United States from northeastern Syria, by targeting ground lines of communication with advanced bombs.
“They’re hammering away at the tactical details and screws about how to attack American Humvees and Cougars, and Russia is getting into the proxy game,” Knights says.
According to Robert Ford, the former US ambassador in Damascus, the United States often exaggerates the importance of northeastern Syria to the Syrian president and his backers, a factor he believes has contributed to America’s drift in the region without a clear end game.
“People in Washington continue to think that the American presence in northeastern Syria is a great bargaining chip,” Ford added.
Assad and the Iranians may want it back, but they don’t need it.
He continued, “It was the Israeli air strikes that harmed Iran, not 900 American soldiers”.
Researcher Andrew Tabler says the US presence only gained significance for Washington with the war in Ukraine, amid signs of increased cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.
“Sometimes denying resources is the best thing you can do… If you are interested in thwarting the new Russian-Iranian alliance, the American presence is important,” he says.
Most researchers and experts don’t expect the United States to leave northern and eastern Syria anytime soon.
“There is no American endgame in Syria, but there is a general view that a withdrawal would be a total mess,” said Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Institute in Beirut.
However, the US presence could be diminished in other ways.
Washington’s Kurdish allies are in talks with Damascus about a possible political deal, but there is little sign of progress.
“For Damascus, the biggest prize is a deal with the Turks,” Heller added.
Finally, and with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan guaranteed to rule for another five years after elections in Türkiye, there are signs that he is looking to join the regional bandwagon and mend relations with Assad.