A befuddled US military’s endgame for post-ISIS Syria

October 29, 2017

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.