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When U.S. President Joe Biden took office, U.S. Syria policy was detached from reality. The Biden administration decided to recalibrate U.S. goals, eliminating both the legally precarious notion of securing Syrian oil facilities and the impractical desire to oust all Iranian forces from a country that has long-standing ties with Iran. The Biden team decided it was time to refocus U.S. efforts on the original mission: the defeat of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The president’s team signaled, first privately with a high-level delegation to Syria in May 2021 and then publicly with off-the-record statements to the press in July 2021, that the United States would maintain a limited military presence of approximately 900 troops in Syria and resume providing targeted stabilization assistance to restore essential services, such as water and electricity, in areas controlled by U.S.-backed forces. The plan was to do this until conditions became more favorable for a negotiated political settlement to the Syrian civil war.
This adjustment was driven by a recognition that although U.S.-backed forces hold sizable swaths of Syrian territory, the United States’ political and diplomatic influence remains limited. Plus, the alternative options are grim. Investing considerably more resources, both financial and military, in hopes of securing an ill-defined political outcome that is highly unlikely to overcome the core challenge in Syria—that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won the war—is neither strategically advisable nor politically tenable. Yet a decision to draw down U.S. forces in Syria so soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would be politically costly and further shake regional confidence in the United States’ commitment to the Middle East.
Still, the status quo comes with its own risks. The battlefield in Syria is complex, and Russian, Syrian, and U.S. forces are operating in increasingly close proximity. At the same time, there has been a significant uptick in Iranian-backed militia attacks targeting U.S. positions and a renewed threat of a Turkish military incursion directed at U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Given all this, the Biden administration needs to address these questions: Is a continued U.S. military presence in Syria necessary, and is it worthwhile?
The Biden administration seems to be holding out hope that conditions will change or improve and that a better negotiated settlement or off ramp will become apparent. Yet every day that passes increases the risks to U.S. forces and weakens, not strengthens, the United States’ bargaining position in terms of what can be obtained from Assad and Russia in exchange for a U.S. departure. Instead of muddling through, the United States should focus on negotiating an exit that, as quickly as possible, secures its two core interests in Syria: U.S. access to Syrian airspace and the safety of Syrians who fought alongside U.S. forces to defeat ISIS.
Syria is becoming an increasingly dangerous environment in which to operate, but ISIS is not primarily responsible for the surge in violence. Violent events in Syria—such as shelling and artillery attacks—are up more than 20 percent this calendar year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit data collection, analysis, and crisis-mapping project. Most of the violence is committed by state actors, including the Assad regime and Turkey. ISIS activity, by contrast, is on a downward trajectory, according to the latest report from the U.S. Defense Department’s inspector general. ISIS claimed 201 attacks between April 1 and June 30, a decrease of more than 60 percent, year over year. Although ISIS remains a persistent threat in Iraq and Syria, it is largely unable to conduct coordinated offensive operations in these countries or plan and direct attacks abroad.
This means the activity of the approximately 900 U.S. military personnel stationed in Syria is also significantly down from its peak. U.S. forces are still providing enabling support, most notably intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and logistics, to allied militias, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. In January, U.S. military support was pivotal in helping the SDF secure a prison in Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria, after ISIS launched an attack to free its members being held there. More than 500 people died in the battle, including 121 SDF fighters. Overall, however, U.S. troops are not conducting as many partnered missions with the SDF. There have been only two operations where the SDF and U.S. forces were fighting side by side so far this year, according to public reporting by the Defense Department and the SDF.
Where U.S. military activity is happening has also changed, shifting to places where the United States has fewer eyes and ears on the ground. Instead of being concentrated in northeastern Syria, where U.S. forces are based, operations against high-value ISIS targets are taking place in Idlib and other areas nominally under the control of various elements of the Syrian opposition. Two ISIS leaders were killed in Idlib Province: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 and his replacement, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in 2022. In June, U.S. forces captured an ISIS bomb-maker in an Aleppo village controlled by Turkish-backed opposition forces, and the following month, a U.S. drone strike killed another high-level ISIS target not far away. A U.S.-raid just last week targeted ISIS elements in a Syrian regime-controlled village. The shift in the epicenter of the fight against ISIS suggests that U.S. forces are still able to capture or kill high-level ISIS operatives in parts of Syria where there is no U.S. troop presence on the ground. That should come as welcome news: an on-the-ground presence may be advantageous, but it is not necessary to safeguard U.S. national security interests.
Even with ISIS violence down, the risks to U.S. troops are growing. Some stem from the increasingly tense relations between the United States and Russia, which have jeopardized what used to be a relatively professional line of communication between U.S. and Russian forces operating in Syria. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian aircraft have engaged in a series of dangerous actions. In June, for example, Russian jets directly targeted Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra, an opposition group backed by the United States. The group is located near the al-Tanf Garrison, a U.S. military base, inside a “deconfliction zone” that Russia had once respected as off-limits. Russia reportedly gave U.S. forces just 30 minutes notice before violating the zone. Such behavior further increases the risk of an unintended direct conflict between the United States and Russia
The war in Ukraine is having another insidious effect. As Russia diverts resources to its war with its eastern European neighbor, Iran has filled the vacuum in Syria, becoming much more influential and less risk averse. Iranian-backed forces are increasingly threatening U.S. operations with direct and indirect fire, launching at least 19 rocket and drone attacks against U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria so far this year. In August, after Iranian-backed forces conducted a coordinated drone and indirect fire attack on two separate U.S. military outposts, the United States responded with targeted strikes on nine uninhabited Shiite militia positions, including weapons caches and checkpoints—which led to more counterattacks from Iranian-backed militias. And as nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran continue to stall, Iran is likely to use its militias in Syria to put additional pressure on the United States in an effort to secure on the battlefield what remains elusive at the negotiating table.
Turkey, a member of NATO and a U.S. ally, is also increasing pressure on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened a renewed military push to achieve his long-held goal of creating a 19-mile buffer in Syria to secure the Turkish border and to enable Syrian refugees living in Turkey to return home. Turkey has fought a decades-long war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in southeastern Turkey and views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units as a direct extension of the PKK. The United States, in contrast, has designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization but has worked closely with the YPG in Syria in the fight against ISIS—indeed, the YPG is frequently referred to as the “backbone” of the SDF by U.S. officials.
Every day that passes increases the risks to U.S. forces.
Since Iran, Russia, and Turkey held trilateral talks in June, Turkey has expanded its use of drones, artillery, and airstrikes in Russian-controlled airspace, targeting U.S. partners. Turkey has conducted at least 56 drone strikes so far this year, killing some 50 SDF fighters, including non-YPG elements, and ten civilians. The surge in activity since the trilateral talks has led the SDF leadership to publicly lament that Russia has greenlighted the increased Turkish air activity and blame the United States and Russia for not stopping it. Turkey’s actions further weaken the U.S. position in northeastern Syria because they divert SDF attention away from ISIS and force the SDF to seek support from Russia and the Assad regime to counter Turkish aggression. Earlier this year, the SDF facilitated the deployment of additional Syrian government forces to SDF-controlled territory to stymie a Turkish incursion. The situation is likely to get worse ahead of the 2023 Turkish elections, with Erdogan potentially willing to take greater risks to stave off defeat.
If all this were not bad enough, the SDF’s hold over territory is also weakening. The COVID-19 pandemic and global inflation have undermined an already dire economic and health situation in northeastern Syria. Cholera has broken out in the region, with over 2,000 suspected cases since September 10 and ten reported deaths. U.S. sanctions on Syria are continuing to weaken the broader national economy on which northeastern Syria is dependent. Even though the United States is doing its part to support the Syrians most in need, providing an astounding $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance in Syria in 2022 alone, it can only do so much.
The Trump administration froze stabilization assistance for Syria in March 2018, as it weighed a potential withdrawal and sought additional contributions from foreign partners, and the Biden administration wisely unfroze it. But the amount of funding pales in comparison to the need. The United States and its partners in the coalition against ISIS never intended to provide reconstruction assistance or to rebuild areas of Syria damaged in the war. Instead, the goal was to retake territory from ISIS and quickly provide essential services and repair key infrastructure so that basic life could resume. Since 2011, the United States has given over $1.3 billion in stabilization assistance to that end. But without significantly more money from the West, the SDF lacks the resources to govern effectively. Even though the SDF invests oil revenues—primarily from oil it sells to the Assad regime—into salaries for local administration in Kurdish and Sunni areas, there is simply not enough revenue to sustain administrative and social services, much less fully rebuild areas damaged by war. Local officials claim at least 30 percent of Raqqa remains in ruins more than three years after major combat operations there ended. Unemployment, particularly among the young, is high. As a result, local populations feel neglected and marginalized, leading to an exodus of those who can afford smugglers and a surge of ISIS recruits among those too poor to escape.
ISIS remains a persistent threat, but unlike the period from 2015 to 2019, when ISIS controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq, it no longer has a safe haven where it can plan and conduct terrorist attacks targeting the West. This means U.S. forces have achieved their original mission. The ISIS threat that remains today can be contained without putting U.S. forces in harm’s way. The U.S. military should continue to target high-level ISIS operatives in drone strikes and airstrikes as well as targeted raids to maintain consistent counterterrorism pressure on what remains of the group. This model has already proved effective in areas of Syria where U.S. forces have not been physically present over the last several years. Also key to this approach would be withdrawing amicably enough to maintain relations with its Syrian partners so that the United States can continue to use human intelligence and to secure access to Syrian airspace. Despite current geopolitical tensions, a U.S. departure loosely coordinated with Russia is the only way to achieve these objectives.
If U.S. forces were to depart in an uncoordinated fashion, the most likely result would be a Turkish military offensive to achieve Erdogan’s stated objectives—an intervention that would very likely displace hundreds of thousands of Syrians and irreparably damage U.S. relations with the SDF. Meanwhile, the Assad regime is militarily incapable of occupying all the territory currently under SDF control. If U.S. forces left tomorrow through a negotiated settlement with Russia, a nominal regime presence, not a full-scale occupation, is the most likely outcome in the areas once controlled by the United States. But even that would still pose grave risks to U.S. partners left behind, since the Assad regime could detain or kill prominent members of the SDF to weaken U.S. influence in areas that would then be under Syrian control. The United States should do all it can to limit the extent of Syrian government atrocities through diplomatic and economic pressure. It should call on Sunni Arab partners in the region—for example, the United Arab Emirates—that are normalizing relations with Assad to do the same.
Fortunately, the Israelis have proved that securing access to Syrian airspace is indeed possible through a combination of diplomacy with Russia, which controls the most advanced air defense systems in Syria, and brute force against the Assad regime if Israeli aircraft are threatened. A loosely coordinated U.S. departure would significantly improve the likelihood of reaching a diplomatic agreement on access to Syrian airspace, and the United States would retain an inherent right to self-defense if threatened by regime forces while conducting strikes against ISIS.
Nearly seven years after the first U.S. boots hit the ground in Syria, it is time for Washington to withdraw its troops. A U.S. military presence in Syria is no longer a strategic asset; it is a vulnerability.