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What does the US actually want in Syria?

August 31, 2022

Recent US attacks on Iran-allied fighters in Syria have renewed focus on US troops there. Some say they're not doing enough and that American policy in Syria is too fuzzy. Others wonder why the US is there at all.

American soldiers drive a Bradley fighting vehicle during a joint exercise with Syrian Democratic Forces at the countryside of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria.
US troops first came to Syria in 2015, to help fight the extremist Islamic State groupImage: Baderkhan Ahmad/AP Photo/picture alliance

After the US bombed Iran-allied fighters in Syria last week, the same old question came up yet again. "What are we still doing in Syria?" one headline read, after the bombing.

American politician, Chris Murphy, who chairs a US government foreign relations subcommittee, published a statement questioning "the wisdom of having so many Americans so thinly spread across the region."

"This comes up whenever US forces get attacked," Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst for the think tank Crisis Group, told DW. "It always raises the question: Why are they there?"

In an August 25 letter to the US Congress, President Joe Biden explained why he had ordered the retaliatory strikes: "In order to protect and defend the safety of our personnel, to degrade and disrupt the ongoing series of attacks against the US and our partners, and to deter … further attacks."

Earlier in August, one US base in al-Tanf, Syria, close to where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet, had come under attack from drones. Other US bases, known as Green Village and Koniko in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, were also targeted by rockets. There were no casualties and a spokesperson described the assaults mostly as "harassing in nature."

The retaliatory US bombing raids in late August killed at least four fighters. It also destroyed vehicles and rocket launchers as well as storage facilities.

Iran denies that it has anything to do with the groups or targets the US attacked.

Fuzzy foreign policy

US troops have been stationed in Syria since 2015 and today there are still around 900 US soldiers posted in the area known as the "Eastern Syria Security Area." They — along with around 2,500 stationed in Iraq — are ostensibly part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the international coalition to defeat the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

Children are seen in a pickup truck on the way to the school in the Hasakah province in northeastern Syria.
An estimated two million people live in the northeastern part of Syria where US troops are stationedImage: Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

But given that the Islamic State's capabilities have been significantly degraded, some Americans are questioning their country's policy in Syria. Critics say that while the most recent US moves in northeastern Syria had a clear objective, the country's foreign policy in Syria in general is far less focused.

"With the exception of confronting the IS threat in northeast Syria, US policy since 2011 has failed to produce positive results," Jeffrey Feltman, a former US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, argued in a January 2021 editorial for the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

"There has truly never been a stand-alone and consistent Syria policy by a US administration since the start of the conflict in 2011," Abdulrahman al-Masri, a former fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, wrote in September 2021. "The US does not know what it wants in Syria and has no coherent endgame — both friends and foes are aware of that."

So what does the US really want?

The US government ordered a review of its Syria policy last year. After that was concluded late in 2021, four priorities were identified regarding the US troop presence in Syria.

Firstly, they were there to sustain the fight against the extremist IS group. This includes helping to train and arm the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who fought the IS group and who now control this part of Syria. The US regularly warns that the militias it supports here may only fight the IS group, unless they are acting in self-defense. 

Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces raise their flag after driving Islamic State militants out of the area, in Manbij, Syria. .
The US' Syrian allies, the SDF, say 11,000 of their members were killed fighting the IS groupImage: ANHA/AP Photo/picture alliance

Other American priorities in Syria include supporting local ceasefires, stabilizing the area and helping with humanitarian aid and access, as well as "pressing for accountability and respect for international law, while promoting human rights and non-proliferation."

All of these are supposed to help in achieving a political solution to the ongoing Syrian crisis, as set out in Resolution 2254, agreed upon by the UN Security Council in 2015.

Not going far enough

But, as analysts who reviewed the new policy objectives later complained, the US policy in Syria remains "timid" and "lukewarm."

"The Americans don't want a big fight in Syria," Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, concluded in an editorial for the Saudi-funded media outlet, Asharq Al-Awsat, in May this year. "They have not yet identified a strategic interest in Syria that justifies a major war there."

In another op-ed for the Atlantic Council in January 2022, Syria researcher al-Masri worried that the new policy objectives actually reflected even more disinterest and could potentially indicate a US withdrawal from the area.

Important role left unspoken

Despite all this, the US does play an important stabilizing role in northeastern Syria, the Crisis Group's Khalifa said.

"I think a lot of people underestimate that," Khalifa said. "They [the US ] are keeping a lid on IS and preventing a free-for-all there." By that, she means that simply by being there, the US presence prevents Turkish troops from advancing here and fighting Kurdish forces — also US allies — they consider enemies, as well as preventing advances by the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrian regime itself.

A view of the Al Omar Oil Field in Deir ez-Zor, Syria .
The US base known as Green Village is near Syria's Al-Omar oil fieldImage: Adnan Alhusen/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

"They are maintaining a balance of power that protects millions of Syrians in this area," Khalifa argued. "There are consequences to their presence and they are mostly positive, to be honest. But that is not something a lot of US policymakers like to talk about, because their mandate is only given to fighting ISIS, not protecting civilians."

Too much uncertainty

At the same time though, Khalifa agreed that critics of the US presence in Syria are right to point out policy failures.

"We don't know, for example, how long they want to be there. We don't know why, while they are there, they are not trying to resolve some of the underlying problems [in the area], problems that will only resurface once they leave — if they do leave," she said.

One example of such a problem is the growing potential for Turkey to launch more attacks against the SDF. "These tensions have been multiplied by US support and backing of the SDF," Khalifa pointed out. "It's a problem that's not going to go away on its own. After all, Turkey is there to stay." 

A member of Kurdish internal security forces stands near women and children living at al-Hol camp.
The SDF manage a large, dangerous camp called al-Hol where thousands of IS family members are confinedImage: Orhan Qereman/REUTERS

Other experts have suggested that an uncertain SDF, which doesn't know how long its American allies will be around, may increasingly turn to Russia to secure its own future. The Russian military is also present in Syria and supports the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad.

And that's just one example of an issue the US has not clarified its position on, Khalifa continued. "They're not really playing a significant mediation role on that, let alone the bigger questions in Syria."

She suspects that US politicians have found it easier not to address these difficult foreign policy questions and "just kick the can down the road until it's someone else's problem."

"Basically it's not a matter of whether the US should stay or leave," she told DW. It's about how the Americans can best utilize their presence and help find a middle ground that offers just enough satisfaction for all parties involved. "Not every party will be happy," Khalifa concluded. "But it should be that every party is content enough not to blow things up."

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.