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America is Playing with Fire in Syria

With ISIS defeated, why are U.S. troops based in al-Tanf in southeast Syria anyway?

Last week, U.S. officials announced they believed Iran and their proxy forces were responsible for the drone attack on the U.S. military outpost at al-Tanf in southeast Syria, where roughly 200 American troops are based. Though there were no casualties from the attack, this incident is a vivid reminder the U.S. keeps a contingent of forces deployed in Syria, risking their lives for an ill-defined mission. Washington should break from this inertia.

The original U.S. mission in Syria, denying ISIS a territorial caliphate—in which the group could organize, recruit, and govern—was accomplished in 2019. The ISIS holdouts that remain today are weak, depleted, scattered, and unable to pose a credible threat to the United States. So why hasn’t the U.S. accepted this victory and withdrawn its troops? The answer lies in Washington’s bullish pursuit of a failing anti-Iran maximum pressure campaign that relies primarily on onerous sanctions and indefinite troop deployments in Iraq and Syria.

The purported strategy behind the maximum pressure campaign is to barrage the targeted country with crippling sanctions in the hopes that this squeeze will force the country to fold and provide the U.S. with its desired concessions. However, the success of maximum pressure hinges on the sanctions’ power to change regime behavior and align the regime’s self-interest with that of the U.S., and U.S. pressure has succeeded only in consolidating popular support for the regimes in Iran and Syria and garnering resentment of Western intervention, rather than eroding domestic support.

Washington approaches Syria’s civil war as if the result is changeable when reality on the ground reflects otherwise. Assad has persisted despite U.S. efforts. Iranian and Russian influence in Syria is not a product of the last 10 years, but a product of decades of parallel interests dating back to the Iran-Iraq War and even earlier during Syria’s time as a French protectorate. To pretend that Assad’s gains and Syria’s relations with Iran and Russia can be undone by a minimal and lackluster U.S. presence is naïve and dangerous.

While the official U.S. position for housing troops in al-Tanf is to combat ISIS at the border, a simple roadmap shows that the al-Tanf base serves a singular purpose: to add to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Located strategically on the Baghdad-Damascus highway, the 55 kilometer deconfliction zone surrounding the garrison blocks the Iraq-Syria border, making it more difficult for Iran to transport resources and weapons to their proxy forces in Syria.

While U.S. officials have historically remained coy about the anti-Iranian objectives of the base, National Security Advisor John Bolton described al-Tanf in 2019 as “still very strategically important in connection with our determination that Iran not achieve this arc of control stretching from Iran through Iraq into Lebanon and Syria.” Instead of prolonging the inevitable, the U.S. should acknowledge victory against ISIS, pull out of Syria, and stop risking American lives for ambiguous aims. Additionally, a drawdown in U.S. forces can signal to Iran in good faith that this relentless maximum pressure campaign is capable of being lifted, should they return to the nuclear deal.

Prolonging maximum pressure also carries a humanitarian cost. Assad and Tehran’s collective apathy towards the suffering of their citizens allow them to pass the buck of U.S. sanctions to their people. Since 2010, the Syrian economy has crumbled to ruin, facing astronomical inflation rates and today 60 percent of the Syrian population are food insecure. Yet Assad’s grasp on his absolute power has remained unchanged and undeterred.

The United States’ next steps can be decisive for the Syrian people. To be clear, we should not pull out of Syria because we’re being attacked by Iranian proxy groups. We should leave because our presence puts American lives at risk for the sake of prolonging an inevitable conclusion. To continue to station troops there is to give anti-American groups with an otherwise limited reach a target within their grasp. God forbid, the next errant drone or rocket attack could result in American casualties or injuries and spiral into a mess that no amount of de-escalation or diplomacy could undo.

By maintaining the U.S. troop presence in Syria, Washington is laying out a tripwire that has a higher likelihood of needlessly entangling the U.S. further in another country’s civil war than limiting Iran’s influence in Syria. While the Assad regime is stained with the blood of the last ten years, the U.S. is not helping anyone by resisting the on-the-ground reality. Instead, we should recognize our interests in the Middle East are limited and face the world as it is.

Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.