A befuddled US military’s endgame for post-ISIS Syria
The Trump administration touts its success in working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish group, in liberating Raqqa and seizing a major oil field near Deir ez-Zor. What comes next, however, is uncertain.
On the military front, there seems to be a race between the US-backed SDF and the Russia-backed Syrian government forces, supported by Shia militiamen, to control areas of eastern Syria bordering Iraq. The United States and Russia are de-conflicting to ensure their forces do not engage each other.
Taking the Syrian town of Bukamal, which borders the Iraqi town of Qaim, is the strategic objective for both sides, as a highway connecting the towns could be a conduit for Iran to send supplies into Syria. Washington does not want it to fall into the hands of the Syrian government. The area also contains remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS) — its last major territorial hold in Syria and Iraq.
The Pentagon has insisted that its objective is defeating ISIS. US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, said: “We’re not in a race. We’re not in the land-grab business. We’re here to defeat ISIS.” However, many analysts are sceptical that political objectives are not being considered in the push to take the border area.
Leaving aside the fate of the Bukamal area, the question arises as to what the US military’s role in Syria will be once ISIS is defeated there. At this point, nothing is clear.
On the one hand, US President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he does not want to engage in nation-building in the Middle East. He also has declared his strong opposition to Iranian activities in the region. The former position would suggest that Trump would likely withdraw US troops from eastern Syria once ISIS is defeated; the latter suggests maintaining some US forces in the area to keep Iranian ambitions in check.
The United States has worked closely with the Syrian Kurds over the past few years because they proved to be the most capable fighters against ISIS. This support incurred the wrath of Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. US forces in Syria have at times played the role of protector of Syrian Kurds against periodic Turkish military incursions.
Does the US military stay in north-eastern Syria to protect the Kurds against a Turkish invasion? Although Damascus has promised the Kurds an autonomous region, does it renege on that commitment and send its forces into the area? Buoyed by recent battlefield successes, the Syrian government might try to retake the region at some point.
And what about governance? Although most of the inhabitants of the north-eastern area of Syria are Kurds, the city of Raqqa and areas around it are inhabited largely by Sunni Arabs, who have expressed concern about the Kurdish role in the city. One Raqqa resident told the Washington Post: “We do not know whether the SDF taking over the city is a liberation or an occupation.”
Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, has said the interim Raqqa Civilian Council consists of “a mix of individuals in the area.” This council is responsible for delivering humanitarian assistance to Raqqa with US support and is to last until May 2018, when there would “either be an election or some other formulation in Raqqa for a new council,” McGurk said.
He claimed that “nobody in these areas wants the Damascus government to return… that would not be stabilising.” However, he did not say what would happen if Damascus attempted to return. Would US personnel — special forces and advisers — remain in the area to protect the inhabitants?
As for the long-term prognosis, McGurk said the international community would not commit to significant reconstruction resources for Syria absent a political solution. Therefore, he went on to say, “we encourage the Russians and everyone else to try to get on track through Geneva so that we can establish a real political process that has some meaning.”
What if this political process continues to go nowhere, especially now that the Moscow-backed Assad regime is emboldened to reclaim all Syrian territory?
These unanswered questions suggest that the US military probably will remain in northern and eastern Syria for at least the short term while the Trump administration figures out what to do.