As part of its campaign to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the US maintains a minor military presence in north-east Syria. This presence is very small in terms of the number of soldiers deployed and the size of the military bases that exist in the area. The overt purpose behind this deployment, according to US officials, was to counter ISIS and make sure that Syrian territories would not be a safe haven for terrorists. The US presence in Syria has been a heated topic for debate among US politicians, especially during the reign of Trump, who repeatedly announced that the US should and would withdraw its troops from Syria. What actually happened was not a full withdrawal but a redeployment and repositioning of forces, which gave the Turkish and the Russians the opportunity to extend their spheres of influence into the east of the Euphrates River. America, however, still has the upper hand in the region and the Syrian Democratic Forces are still the main ally that the US has in the area. They are also the main protector of US interests there. Even after pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the US announced that its position in Syria would not change. This paper will argue that the US military presence in Syria came about not only to confront ISIS but to counterbalance the Russians in Syria. Alongside the geopolitical complications of the US presence in Syria, the war in Ukraine will affect the US presence in Syria by encouraging the US to extend its military presence there for the foreseeable future, to prevent the Russians from achieving full military success in Syria.
Beyond ISIS: the US Military Presence in Syria
In 2014, ISIS emerged as a powerful military force in Iraq and Syria. Apart from the geographical areas it seized in both countries, the group’s success in establishing an Islamic state provided a source of inspiration for many lone wolf attacks around the world. ISIS used Syria as a base for its attacks on Western targets across the world. Authorized by Congress, the US announced an anti-ISIS campaign that included air strikes against the group and the provision of military advisers to train, advise, and assist local Kurdish and Arab groups in forming what later became known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It could be argued that the Battle of Baghuz in February 2019 brought about the end of the Caliphate as an effective entity in Syria and Iraq. Despite this, the US continues to preserve a small military presence in Syria, mainly in al-Omar oil field in Deir Ezzor and al-Tanf base in the southern part of the country. Apart from preventing a resurgence of ISIS in eastern Syria, the remaining forces played a major role in countering Russian influences in the country. In 2015, Russia intervened to prop up the Syrian regime, which was on the brink of collapse, and used this intervention as an opportunity to build a long-lasting influence in Syria. Russia’s aim was to enable the Syrian regime to extend its authority across the full territory of Syrian lands. However, by maintaining a presence in eastern Syria, the US prevented a full Russian hegemony in Syria and stopped the regime (Russia’s ally) from seizing the oil and gas fields in the eastern part of the country, as this could have played a major role in rejuvenating the Syrian economy.
US Russian Tension in Eastern Syria
Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2015 resulted in the defeat of the Syrian opposition while stabilizing Assad’s rule in areas of the north and south of the country. Consequently, Russia also established a few military bases in Syria, such as those in Lattakia and Palmyra. Around the same time, the US supported the SDF in defeating ISIS and established a military presence in the eastern and southern parts of Syria. Syria was therefore divided by these two major powers, the western part of the country under Russian influence and the eastern part of the country under American influence. These two major forces have co-existed in Syria for more than five years now; however, there has been incessant tension between the two major forces. This short piece will not cover all these episodes of tension but will refer to two major incidents. In 2017, a spokesperson for the US-led Coalition confirmed that Russian and Syrian government forces had crossed the Euphrates River near Deir Ezzor, not far from where the Syrian Democratic Forces were, and that they had been hit by an airstrike leading to the deaths of dozens of Russian soldiers. At the end of August 2020, seven American soldiers were injured in a collision with a Russian vehicle. The Russian and US governments blamed each other for the collision, which was filmed and posted to Twitter.
Other geopolitical complications
The US presence in eastern Syria, with its main aim of counterbalancing the Russians, has other overlapping factors, which complicates the picture. Turkey, in the north, considers the SDF as composed mainly of members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and wants to eliminate its presence on its borders. Turkey has already conducted a military operation in northern Syria, during which it managed to capture areas from the SDF. Continuous announcements from Turkey that it will conduct military operations against what it describes as a terrorist organization (namely SDF), puts pressure on the American presence in Syria in terms of trying to create a balance between its strategic interests with its NATO ally and preserving its military presence in eastern Syria by relying on SDF as a legitimatizing ground force. Russia also tries to use its connections with Turkey to put pressure on the Americans in eastern Syria. Additionally, on multiple occasions, Iran has attempted to target US forces in eastern Syria through its tribal proxies, with the aim of pushing them out of the country.
The War in Ukraine and its Impact on the US Presence in Syria
The war in Ukraine has brought US-Russian tension to the fore. Many are wondering if we are back to a situation akin to the Cold War and whether the confrontation between Moscow and Washington will spill over into other parts of the world. At the time of writing this article, Russia claimed that a group of Syrian US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra fighters had conducted a roadside bomb attack against Russian forces in Syria. As a retaliation, the Russians conducted airstrikes against local fighters allied with the US in south-eastern Syria. The Russian airstrikes come when tensions are high between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine. More tension between the two major powers will likely arise again in Syria over the coming period. This will manifest itself in the form of loyal Syrian proxies being used to score points against the other side.
In conclusion, the US military presence in Syria that came after 2015 was not only intended to defeat ISIS and prevent its resurgence but also aimed to establish a counter-hegemonic power to the presence of Russia in the western parts of Syria. In short, it could be said that the Russians held the western part of Syria as their sphere of influence and the Americans had the east as their sphere of influence. During the five years of their co-existence as neighbors in the east and west parts of Syria, both powers managed their relationship with short episodes of tension. The war in Ukraine will silence any voices that ask the US administration to withdraw from Syria, and we will likely witness more episodes of intermittent tension between the Russians and the Americans in Syria being expressed through small skirmishes here and there via their ground force proxies.