By Miles Crawford
With ISIS apparently eradicated from Iraq and only marginally present in Syria, the Trump administration is now increasingly using U.S. hard-power to counter Iran’s regional ambitions, the beginning of a fundamentally new mission in contrast to the counter-terrorism operations still targeting ISIS militants. Although U.S. military officials publicly deny this shift, statements from the Trump administration and U.S. actions in Syria indicate what is effectively a policy of scorched earth, the denial of Iranian influence regardless of that policy’s effects on Syria itself. The Trump administration is choosing to stave off reconstruction in order to pursue other ends to the conflict–ends which might conflict their poorly conceived strategic vision.
Despite years of very bloody conflict, the pace of news developments from Syria has slowed. Though tensions are high, the present division of territory has remained relatively stable over the past year, with the exception of the gradually disappearing pockets of ISIS territory. Nonetheless, with all groups dug-in, there is little movement of people or material between these zones of control, and as time stretches on, the disunity of the country will have profound implications for reconstruction. Only when these lines of demarcation are eased will the country be able to patch itself back together.
So where do things stand today? Prior to the outbreak of war, the Syrian regime was considered a formidable regional power. Syria even deployed troops abroad as with the partial occupation of Lebanon from 1975 to 2005. At present, the regime of Bashar al-Assad does not have the capacity to control the country’s territory. Syria today is divided among several local Syrian and foreign actors. The Assad regime, materially backed by Iran and Russia, firmly controls the western population centers and the seaport of Latakia. In Syria’s north, counter-government rebels still retain fragile control over Idlib province along the Turkish border. Turkey is supporting rebels of its own along their southern border as a hedge against the Kurdish forces which control nearly all territory east of the Euphrates river. The situation is further complicated in that the Kurds are receiving military and operational support from the U.S. Numbers of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Syria are said to range a little above 2,000.
Although U.S. troop numbers in Syria are relatively low in comparison to other U.S. foreign engagements, the Trump administration is pushing for a more aggressive military stance against Iran. Back in mid-September, National Security Adviser John Bolton asserted “we’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” Bolton and the Trump administration argue that Iran’s proliferation of advanced conventional weapons as well as support for aggressive Shia militias warrants a response. This position marks a shift from the past,when the stated U.S. mission was simply to “kill terrorists.”
American military leadership appears uncomfortable with the policy shift to counter Iran, and has strained not to acknowledge the change in policy. Also in September, Brigadier General Scott Benedict, deputy director for the Joint Staff, stated in a Congressional hearing that “Our role is to defeat ISIS.” When pressed on the issue of countering Iran, Benedict answered, “Certainly being on the ground and creating a stabilized situation there limits the freedom of maneuver of anybody who has malign intentions….. That includes Iranian proxies as well as violent extremists.” As noted by Gen. Benedict, having U.S. forces on the ground in Syria does influence Iranian strategic calculus. However, the makeup and structure of U.S. forces in Syria remains far more honed to the counterterrorism mission than to strategic confrontation with Iran.
Although now less of a concern, there remains a legitimate need to retain some U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq to address the residual threat of ISIS. Though ISIS appears to hear its death knell in Syria and Iraq, it could still regather to exploit the significant discontent among the Sunni populations of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Massive protests flared throughout the predominantly Sunni regions of Iraq last summer, demonstrating the continued discontent with the current regime. ISIS was viewed with disgust by the vast majority of Syrians and Iraqis, but if conditions fail to improve some may once again resort to violence. Additionally, failure to totally defeat ISIS would lend legitimacy to violent extremists globally. Should ISIS make even a limited resurgence, their success would inspire sympathisers to strike locally within Western countries. Conversely, would-be attackers are discouraged by continued futility of violent extremism.
In Trump administration’s view, a ruined and divided Syria is acceptable in that it denies Iran of a medium for their malign influence. The Trump administration’s stated emphasis on countering Iranian necessitates keeping U.S. forces in Syria, creating temporary peace but also keeping the country wedged apart. Iranian actions in the region warrant legitimate concern, but the consequences of U.S. posture extend the possibility of future instability, even a resurgence of al-Qaeda or ISIS. However, the current U.S. posture does not appear adequately structured or equipped to meaningfully support the intentions of the Trump administration. At present the U.S. is pursuing a strategy to counter Iran resources insufficient to meet this goal. Such a strategy also undermines the counter-insurgency mission for which U.S. forces are better prepared. Because of this incongruity of goals, strategy and resources, Syria is at greater risk of continued instability.
America’s military leaders recognise that a major conflict with Iran would likely become far more destabilizing and dangerous than the present situation. Despite the compelling reasons to remain focused on counterterrorism and reconstruction missions, the White House is opting for policies that will, at best, prolong the military deadlock, and at worst, could spiral into an all-out regional conflict for which the U.S. is ill prepared.