Troops to stay put in Syria even as Biden seeks to end America’s ‘forever wars’

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The Biden administration is pulling all American troops out of Afghanistan and formally transitioning to an advisory role in Iraq. But the U.S. military operation in Syria has seen no changes — and officials expect hundreds of troops to remain in the country for the foreseeable future.

Roughly 900 U.S. troops, including a number of Green Berets, will remain in Syria to continue supporting and advising the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State — the same role they have played since the American-led intervention in 2014, according to a senior Biden administration official.

“I don’t anticipate any changes right now to the mission or the footprint in Syria,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive plans.

As President Joe Biden seeks to end America’s “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s quiet operation in Syria has, for the most part, flown under the radar. After seven years of conflict and two attempts by former President Donald Trump to pull American troops out, defense and administration officials tell POLITICO the administration now has no plans to make any changes to the U.S. military operation in Syria.

“In Syria, we're supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS,” the senior administration official said. "That's been quite successful, and that's something that we’ll continue.”

The confirmation comes as Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced on Monday that the mission in Iraq will transition from combat to advisory by the end of the year. American troops there have had a similar mission: helping local forces fight the Islamic State.

In reality, no American troops have accompanied local forces on combat patrols for over a year in either Iraq or Syria, one defense official said. Since 2014, the aim has been to build the capacity of the local forces in both countries to fight ISIS independently, a major shift from the U.S. operation in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

“They are not kicking in doors, apprehending the enemy, etc,” the official said. As in Iraq, the United States’ primary local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has been in the lead in combat operations against the Islamic State, with U.S. and coalition troops providing support from afar, the official added.

For example, on July 21, the SDF conducted a raid in Hasekah, Syria, against Islamic State militants, killing one, the coalition announced. Coalition forces conducted two airstrikes on the building in support of the SDF soldiers and to ensure the terrorist threat was eliminated. No American or coalition troops were involved in the raid.

However, American forces in Syria have come under fire in recent weeks. Troops at the Al Omar oilfield in eastern Syria were attacked by a drone on July 7 and in a separate incident hit with multiple rockets on June 28. The incidents were part of a series of attacks by Iranian-backed militias against Americans in both Iraq and Syria, which have stepped up efforts to push the U.S. out of the region in recent months.

Last year, Russian forces repeatedly encroached on U.S. troop-controlled territory in eastern Syria as part of what officials said was a deliberate campaign to squeeze the American military out of the region. In August, four U.S. service members were injured after an altercation with Russian forces in northeast Syria.

Amid the smorgasbord of foreign interests in Syria, the American military mission there has broad ramifications far beyond the ISIS fight, experts say — most critically, providing a check on Russian and Iranian interests. The presence of U.S. troops prevents the Russian-backed Syrian government from accessing the oil fields and agricultural resources of northeastern Syria, and serves to obstruct Iran’s goal to establish a geographic corridor connecting Tehran with Lebanon and the Mediterranean, said Will Todman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Maintaining an ability to obstruct Iranian efforts to transport arms and weapons into Syria is an important piece of the U.S. presence there,” Todman said. “Iran benefits from ongoing instability.”

But while factions in the Trump administration strove initially to replace President Bashar Assad and later to prevent his government and Iranian factions from seizing the region’s oil fields, Biden’s team is focused more on stability and conflict management, said Aron Lund, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

“There is no clean, safe, uncontroversial way to leave, and Biden seems to have made clear he doesn’t want to have to handle unnecessary crises in Syria when he has bigger things on his plate,” Lund said.

Another important difference between Iraq and Syria is that the local Syrian partner, the SDF, wants the U.S. to stay, partially as a guarantor against attacks by the Russians, he said. In Iraq, on the other hand, the American presence poses a political quandary for Kadhimi, who is facing pressure from Iranian-linked factions in his government to force the Americans to leave.

Still, experts say any significant change to the American military posture in Iraq would likely complicate the situation in Syria, particularly as the United States’ primary route of access to its forces in eastern Syria runs through the border with Iraq.

“Syria is one reason — of many — for why actually leaving Iraq and ending the presence there is seen as problematic,” Lund said.

Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official for Middle East Policy, agreed that if U.S. “support assets” for Syria that come from through Iraq, including equipment supply and personnel, are withdrawn, “it could impact the Syria mission.”

Asked whether a change to the U.S. presence in Iraq would affect the troop situation in Syria, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby declined to comment on the discussions.

“What decisions might come out of these talks [with Iraq] that could affect the footprint in Syria, I just don't know,” Kirby said. “But clearly, the fight against ISIS continues.”

Meanwhile, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, declined earlier this year to give a direct answer about the future of U.S. military operations in Syria. But he made clear that the American troop presence provided “an element of stability” in the war-torn country.

“What would happen if we withdrew is a question that we would need to take a look at,” McKenzie said.

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