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Make ISIS Iran's Problem

Our continued presence in Syria is another example of the national security establishment funding a futile forever war.

SYRIA-IRAN-DIPLOMACY
(Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The American war on terror needs to stop carrying water for Iran and its allies in Syria. The continued deployment of American forces in Syria is not just a counterproductive policy; it is flawed, futile, and fatal for American forces. The most recent tragedy occurred in March. U.S. personnel suffered 26 casualties from drone strikes on their base.    

The incident is part of a growing list of setbacks and failures for the Biden administration’s Syria policy. The ongoing threat to U.S. forces in Syria and the de facto assistance given to America’s three main antagonists in the region—Iran, Damascus, and Hezbollah—is a direct result of the president’s unwillingness to prioritize among the country’s different policy objectives in the Middle East. The lack of prioritization is compounded by Biden’s pursuit of unachievable and unproductive outcomes.

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In 2012, Iran and Hezbollah rushed to the aid of their Shia ally Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The protests of the Arab Spring in Syria had transformed into an armed insurgency, fracturing the country and threatening the survival of Assad’s regime. ISIS entered the fray in 2013 and began controlling large swaths of Syrian territory, compounding the already precarious predicament of the Assad regime.

The U.S. intervention against ISIS in 2014 has proved to be a godsend for Iran and its allies. The United States and others shouldered much of the fight against ISIS, relieving Iran, Damascus, and Hezbollah of the burden of reconquering significant portions of Syrian territory. As of 2023, the United States has 900 soldiers and an undisclosed number of American contractors operating in the provinces of Al-Hasakah and Raqqa in northeastern Syria, and a garrison at Al-Tanf in southeastern Syria. Their presence is part of the 85-member Global Coalition against ISIS that seeks the enduring defeat of the Islamic State.

U.S. operations against remnants of ISIS in Syria enables Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime to direct their attention, limited manpower, and scant resources elsewhere. It affords Iran the opportunity to invest in confronting Israel. It permits Hezbollah to focus on surviving in the failed state of Lebanon and threatening Israel. It allows a weak, exhausted, and financially-strapped Assad regime to reconsolidate its control and focus on reclaiming northwestern Syria.

Alleviating Assad of the burden of governing and providing security runs counter to U.S. policy. If the United States is sincere about confronting and degrading Iran and its allies, it would withdraw its forces. This action would multiply the problems Iran and its allies face. Iran, Damascus, and Hezbollah are already struggling with sanctions, failing economies, internal strife, and prosecuting a 12-year Syrian conflict. These allies cannot afford to ignore ISIS because they, as Shia, are a primary target of the organization.

Policymakers and analysts employ five arguments to justify the maintenance of U.S. troops and contractors in Syria. The problem with these rationales is that they are unrealistic and produce undesirable results. Meanwhile American personnel endure repeated attacks from Iranian-backed militias.

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The most prominent argument justifying the American military presence in Syria is the threat from ISIS. Although the United States announced the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2019, two issues remain unresolved. The first issue is the possibility that ISIS could reemerge. To address this problem the U.S. military continues degrading the organization by capturing and killing ISIS leadership and uncovering sleeper cells. The second issue is assisting in managing the detention and repatriation of ISIS prisoners and their families. 

Further degrading ISIS is a futile endeavor. ISIS is a product of Sunni Muslim political grievances created by years of poor governance and ascendant Shia Muslim power in the Middle East. Altering the regional dynamics and erasing memories of those grievances is a decades-long process to which American military power is irrelevant. Furthermore, the last four years demonstrate that the U.S. engagement in the further degradation of ISIS is a whack-a-mole operation. After the U.S. eliminates one ISIS leader, another takes his place. The process could continue for decades because the internet, not the physical presence of the Islamic state, remains a medium for radicalization and networking.  

Managing the detention and repatriation process of ISIS fighters and families is another endless effort. As of January 2023, roughly 55,000 ISIS family members reside at al-Hawl and al-Roj camps in Syria. Approximately 3,000 residents of the camps were repatriated in 2022. At this rate, the U.S.-led effort will take another 18 years to empty the camps, extending the now nine-year American presence into an almost three-decade campaign in Syria. 

A second argument involves the American partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces. Many believe that the United States is indebted to Syria’s Kurds for their bravery and sacrifices in the fight against ISIS. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham accused President Trump of abandoning the Kurds when Trump partially withdrew U.S. forces in 2019. A complete removal of U.S. forces exposes Syrian Kurdish forces to almost certain defeat at the hands of the Turkish Army.    

This argument ignores the fact that the U.S.-Kurdish partnership, particularly cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a source of friction with Turkey, a key NATO ally. The Turks believe the YPG is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government designates as a terrorist organization and an existential threat.  

The American partnership with the YPG is a case of failing to see the forest for the trees. The United States maintains relations with an ethnic militia at the price of aggravating relations with a key regional ally. The partnership jeopardizes larger, more important geopolitical issues, threatens U.S. policy, and potentially impedes strategy. Turkish cooperation is critical for confronting Russia in Ukraine and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. It also jeopardizes U.S. access to the Turkish air base in Incirlik, which is a key logistics base that serves the Black Sea, Central Asia, and the Middle East.  

A third argument is based on the alleged need to promote democracy in the Middle East. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) celebrates its burgeoning democratic, egalitarian, multi-sectarian, and multi-ethnic society. The U.S. presence acts as a buffer against Turkish and Syrian encroachment that allows the AANES to endure and exist as a final glimmer of success from the now-defunct Arab Spring.  

The problem with this argument is that AANES is living on borrowed time. Similar to the Karzai and Ghani governments of Afghanistan, the autonomous administration only survives as long as the American military presence remains in Syria. A future for the AANES requires an indefinite commitment from America. Turkey will not allow an autonomous entity that enables the YPG to exist after the U.S. exits. Bashar al-Assad remains intent on reclaiming control over all of Syria. He just reaffirmed his position for a united Syria by rejecting an AANES overture for dialogue that would recognize the AANES as part of a federalized Syria.   

A fourth argument for an American troop presence in Syria is that troop removal can be used as a bargaining chip in future peace negotiations. Since the inception of the Syrian conflict, the United States has sought a role in its resolution. The U.S. seeks a political transition in Syria through U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 that would remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The continued U.S. presence in Syrian territory enables it to retain leverage over a final outcome to the conflict and a seat at the negotiating table.

Maintaining U.S. military forces in eastern and northeastern Syria as leverage over a final solution is flawed logic at this stage of the conflict. By alleviating the burden of governing and securing a quarter of Syrian territory, Damascus is allowed more time to further regroup and reconsolidate, which ultimately strengthens its negotiating position. It makes the realization of a political resolution on American terms all the less likely.     

Furthermore, the writing is on the wall regarding the future of Syria. Bashar al-Assad will remain its leader barring an unforeseen development. With his retention of power, hope for a just and comprehensive resolution to the conflict is illusory. As witnessed in the last month, the visits by the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers to Damascus followed by the reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League demonstrate a willingness by key Arab states to work with and welcome an Assad-led Syria back into the fold. As Arab support for Assad’s removal dwindles, the idea of U.S. leverage over Assad and a comprehensive just resolution becomes increasingly untenable.     

A fifth and final argument is that the American presence complicates the military efforts of Iran and its allies in Syria. According to this thinking, the establishment of the U.S. military base at Al-Tanf in southeastern Syria (located at the meeting point of the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian borders and near a major transit point between Syria and Iran via Iraq) in 2016 serves two objectives: fight ISIS and create a logistical challenge to Iran’s presence in Syria. The strategic location of the U.S. garrison is meant to disrupt the transfer of Iranian military infrastructure from Tehran to Damascus that is intended to deepen the Iranian military presence in Syria.  

The regular Israeli airstrikes in Syria since 2017 prove the ineffectiveness of the garrison at Al-Tanf. Iranian military entrenchment in Syria continues despite the presence of U.S. forces. In the month of April alone, Israel struck Syria at least five times. The continued presence of the garrison remains a non-factor in Iran’s future plans for Syria. The Iranian defense minister announced in early May that Iran will provide sophisticated weaponry and establish factories in Syria to produce defense equipment as ways to deepen Iranian and Syrian military cooperation.  

What the Biden administration expects to accomplish in Syria through a continued troop presence is baffling. Why should attacks on U.S. personnel in Syria and U.S. casualties continue to be endured for a foolish, flawed, and futile policy?

The only thing the president has accomplished is prolonging another forever war while simultaneously assisting enemies. American troops and contractors are engaged in operations against ISIS that have lasted nine years with no end in sight. U.S. cooperation with an ethnic militia aggravates relations with a NATO ally at the risk of complicating critical regional and international issues. U.S. forces are placed in harm’s way for an autonomous democratic entity that will never be allowed to formally exist. A just and comprehensive resolution to the Syrian conflict becomes increasingly unlikely. The transfer of Iranian weapons into Syria continues.

The Biden administration must prioritize among American interests in the Middle East and focus on achievable objectives. Diminishing Iran’s influence remains a key national security objective in the region. This goal can be achieved in Syria by withdrawing American forces and making Iran and its allies responsible for eastern and northeastern Syria. It’s time to make ISIS Iran’s problem.