Syria: 11 Years at War – Syria has found itself on the doorstep of its twelfth year at war. Eleven years ago, on March 15, 2011, Syrians took to the streets in Damascus to protest the Syrian government. These protests would go on to spark the conflict that consumed Syria– leaving 22 million Syrians displaced and hundreds of thousands killed according to a recent UN Human Rights Council report. Now, an entire generation of Syrian children knows nothing but war.
The U.S. currently stations 900 troops in a pocket of Northeast Syria, as well as a zone along the Iraqi/Jordanian border. The U.S. claimed the mission was to eliminate ISIS’ territorial caliphate. However, this objective was achieved three years ago in March 2019. Despite preaching the end of endless wars, the U.S. insists on staying in Syria – to protect the people, to counter Russia, etc. However, the U.S. presence achieves neither of these objectives and, in practice, we aren’t helping. We are prolonging the inevitable, just as we did for over a decade in Afghanistan.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said, since the beginning of the war, that he intended to take back “every inch” of Syria. While opposition forces posed a valiant counterinsurgency to Assad’s regime, a war of attrition spanning 11 years with two great powers propping up the Syrian government, tipped the scale in favor of the regime. Assad’s staying in power is an inevitable part of the war’s conclusion.
While the U.S. has hoped to improve the humanitarian conditions in Syria, through resisting the Assad regime and sanctioning him and his allies, the U.S. presence has been harmful for two main reasons. First, by denying Assad territory, the U.S. has frozen the conflict. The small pockets of territory U.S. troops hold keep the civil war alive and active in perpetuity, which crippled the Syrian economy further.
Second, even if any country wanted to work with Assad to aid in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure, they would risk sanctions under the Caesar Act. The U.S. has labeled Assad a pariah. However, this isolation has been to a detriment, freezing Syria in a broken state with no donors, no partners, and no ability to attempt to rebuild, reintegrate into the global economy, or establish any semblance of normalcy to the country. Assad remains in power and unharmed by obstinate American pressure. Therefore, the only ones who will feel the weight of our actions are the very people we intended to help.
Further, some argue that to leave would be to abandon the Kurdish forces, who have been U.S. partner forces in the mission against ISIS since 2014. However, the U.S. is not doing the Kurds any favors by perpetually occupying the territory. Just as in Afghanistan, staying to protect a group, knowing that the U.S. cannot provide permanent occupation for protection, only delays an inevitable security dilemma for the group. The U.S. risks moral hazard with the Kurds, feigning support when the U.S. will eventually leave. Instead of leaving the Kurds high and dry when that day comes, the U.S. should do them the courtesy of letting them establish a status-quo ante in return for protection from regional opponents including Turkey. While it may be a pill that is hard to swallow, the U.S. needs to face reality and encourage its partner forces to do the same.
Finally, throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the administration has been adamant that the U.S. is not willing to risk confrontation between U.S. and Russian troops, as such a clash could lead to uncontrollable escalation. However, our 900 American servicemen and women face this risk every day they are kept in Syria. This prospect is not unthinkable either. In February 2018, Russian private military contractors attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, U.S. partner forces, in territory where American troops were stationed. While there were no American casualties, they did fire upon the Russian forces and as many as 300 Syrian and Russian fighters were killed in the clash.
Russian influence is not a partnership that can be broken by 900 U.S. troops. The Soviet Union supported Syria’s sovereignty as early as the 1950s and the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1980 that has persisted during the rule of Hafez al-Assad and continues today under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This partnership simply does not affect U.S. interests. The small benefit Russia may find in Syria will not outweigh the burdens or justify risking American lives. Now more than ever, American casualties at the hands of Russian forces could erupt into an uncontrollable escalation that cannot be undone or diffused by diplomacy.
The Syrian civil war has slogged on for far too long, simply because the U.S. has not faced reality. Russia will remain in Syria far after the war is over and Assad will continue to rule with his allies behind him. The U.S. has become attached to objectives that it does not have the will to achieve. There is very little of this outcome that the U.S. is capable of changing with 900 troops. However, something achievable and in line with U.S. interests is seeing the conflict as it is, withdrawing U.S. troops from the country, and stopping the punishment of Syrian civilians. Another decade of this war is not worth maintaining a façade of moral superiority because the U.S. refuses to accept reality.
Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.