Troops Fight On in the Mideast
Newsweek|August 27, 2021
While Biden leaves Afghanistan and pulls back in Iraq, the U.S. military persists in Syria
TOM O'CONNOR

JUST OVER SIX MONTHS INTO HIS TENURE, President Joe Biden has overseen the withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan and pulled back the Pentagon’s mission in Iraq amid domestic and regional pressure. But in Syria, the U.S. Military remains with no discernable exit plan.

“Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are three completely separate issues and should not be conflated,” a senior Biden administration official tells Newsweek. “On Syria, we do not anticipate any changes right now to the mission or the footprint.”

That’s because the administration says the strategy is working as is. “We are supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS,” the official adds. “That has been quite successful, and that’s something that we’ll continue.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces are one of several factions in Syria’s decade-long civil war. The largely Kurdish-led militia has received the Pentagon’s backing since 2015, about a year after former President Barack Obama rallied a multinational coalition to fight the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Around the same time, Russia also joined the fight against ISIS, intervening directly on behalf of a separate campaign led by the Syrian government, its ally Iran and militias aligned with them. The parallel offensives in Syria eventually dismantled the self-styled caliphate violently erected by ISIS, but the years since have seen little disengagement among the top two rival factions that fought the jihadis.

The U.S.-led coalition pursued a similar anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq in collaboration with Baghdad. Unlike the Pentagon-partnered Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, both of which also received assistance from Iran, however, Damascus and its Syrian Arab Army consider the U.S. military presence a foreign occupation and demand an immediate departure. While Biden did announce an end to the “combat” mission in Iraq late last month as resistance factions called for U.S. troops to leave, no withdrawal was announced and there’s no indication they will be leaving Syria anytime soon.

Politically, the Biden administration has outlined several primary objectives for the country. “As far as our broader U.S. strategy for Syria, we have identified key priorities: mitigating human suffering, expanding humanitarian access, sustaining the campaign against ISIS and making clear our intolerance toward human rights abuses by the regime and other actors in the Syrian conflict,” the senior administration official says.

While policymakers have sought to distinguish the U.S. presence in Iraq from its presence in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition has defined similar goals for the missions in both countries. “The Coalition’s mission remains, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, and in conjunction with our partner forces—the SDF, the ISF and Peshmerga—to defeat Daesh and its remnants in designated areas of Syria and Iraq and set conditions for regional stability, security and economic prosperity,” U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto, spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, tells Newsweek.

Likewise, Department of Defense spokesperson Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Anton T. Semelroth says, “The United States will maintain its military presence in eastern Syria to execute our sole mission in Syria: the enduring defeat of ISIS.” Semelroth adds, “U.S. and Coalition forces continue to work by, with and through vetted local partner forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to achieve this mission.”

As for U.S. Central Command, tasked with overseeing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, spokesperson U.S. Army Major John J. Rigsbee says, “The DoD mission in Syria is to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS. As part of the Defeat-ISIS effort, the SDF, with the support of U.S. forces, secures critical petroleum infrastructure in northeast Syria to deny ISIS access to critical resources and revenue that could be used to buy arms and conduct operations. Syrian oil is for the Syrian people and we remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.”

Three Administrations, Three Approaches

DAMASCUS, HOWEVER, ALONG WITH its allies Moscow and Tehran, has blamed Washington for perpetuating Syria’s woes through economic and military coercion.

Shortly after Biden came to office in January, Syria’s permanent mission to the United Nations explained the country’s outstanding quarrels with the U.S. Before Biden, President Obama first sought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by funding insurgents and then offered assistance to the Syrian Democratic Force. President Donald Trump oversaw the conclusion of the active combat phase of the anti-ISIS campaign and called for a withdrawal of troops, but later settled on focusing U.S. military presence near oil and gas fields.

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