Secretary of Defense Mattis today re-iterated that American soldiers can remain in Syria to help ensure stability, but no one knows what kind of time horizon is being discussed for these deployments… if it is even being discussed at all. While ISIS appears to be largely defeated and other Islamist forces are up against the ropes in Idlib, the Department of Defense likely wishes to remain in Syria, against President Trump’s occasional judgements on the matter, in order to maintain strategic ambiguity as well as to provide a strategic deterrent in the region.
Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) consists of a coalition of nations waging war against ISIS/ISIL, but in the past had a difficult time finding reliable partner forces in the region. NEWSREP previously detailed some of these disastrous attempts in Syria. However, US Special Operations Forces partnered with Kurdish militias known as the YPG and YPJ in Northern Syria. These militias were bundled together with some Arab militias to form the Syrian Democratic Forces. According to a recent press release put out by the OIR public affairs office, “Syrian Democratic Forces have proven themselves reliable, effective combat soldiers who abide by the law of armed conflict.”
Currently there are somewhere around 2,000 American soldiers stationed in Syria, a mix of conventional and Special Operations soldiers.
Maintaining these soldiers in place ensures that there is a strategic deterrent in place, one that prevents either the Assad regime or an invasion launched by the Turkish military from rushing into the void created if the US suddenly withdrew. The Kurdish forces have proven to be effective in combat, but they simply do not have the hardware, such as air defenses, to stand up to a full blown assault from Syrian, Turkish, or Russian military aircraft. By keeping troops on the ground in Northern Syria, known as Rojava to the Kurds, is similar to having Americans stationed in places like Poland or Latvia. Aggressor forces know that they will be fighting Americans and that the full might of the American war machine will be brought to bear during the ensuing conflict.
Another reason that likely played into the logic behind keeping troops in Rojava is to project a sense of strategic ambiguity. What this means is that the United States is intentionally not signaling what it’s future foreign policy decisions will be regarding the Kurds and Syria. In other words, we are waging a information operation that emphasizes strategic uncertainty. The Kurds almost certainly understand that the conclusion of the Syrian Civil War will require them to reach some sort of negotiated settlement with the Assad regime, one that likely includes Rojava being re-integrated into the Syrian state but with increased local autonomy and governance for the Kurdish people. For now, America wants to avoided weighing in on the matter.
For the Department of Defense, there is another more pragmatic reason for remaining in Syria. The Obama administration uprooted the military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq as withdrawing from the country was a fixture of his presidential campaign. After shutting everything down and pulling out, ISIS swept through the region and the American military was once again called upon to deploy to Iraq and sort out another mess. Senior and junior officers alike are probably hesitant to pull out of Syria entirely knowing how much harder it will be to re-insert and start from scratch when (not if) tensions flare up again.
That said, the problem with deterrence and ambiguity is that they have no expiration date, and no clear end game, which sees soldiers deployed out into forever with nebulous missions and objectives. As with everything in Syria, the future is far from certain and the end of the book may turn out to just be the end of the first chapter.