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Explainer: Why Does America Have Forces in Syria?

Considering the ramp up in tensions between Iran and the U.S., the presence of American troops in Syria is unlikely to change in the near future.

M777 Marine Corps
SYRIA - U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, Mar. 24, 2017. The unit provided 24/7 support in all weather conditions to allow for troop movements, to include terrain denial and the subduing of enemy forces. More than 60 regional and international nations have joined together to enable partnered forces to defeat ISIS and restore stability and security. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Note: these are similar weapons to the ones being sent to Ukraine).

The White House announced that American troops will remain in Syria, despite the recent flare-up of attacks targeting U.S. personnel there last week by Iran-backed militants. A U.S. contractor was killed by an Iranian drone; however, this incident was just one of hundreds of barrages carried out by the regime’s proxies since the beginning of this year alone. The suicide drone set off a series of retaliatory bombings and President Biden warned that the U.S. would “act forcefully” to defend Americans if violence escalates. Often, Iranian attacks targeting American personnel and facilities in Syria are largely ignored by the mainstream media. The atypical death of a U.S. contractor  highlighted the consistent counter-terrorism mission American troops have been carrying out on the ground in Syria for nearly eight years.

How did U.S. troops end up in Syria in the first place?

The first American ground troops entered Syria in late 2015 to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State. Years of domestic turmoil fueled in part by a ruthless authoritarian government created a power vacuum that was ultimately exploited by the terrorist organization. By 2013, the Islamic State began taking control of more and more Syrian cities and provinces. The terror group even orchestrated multiple cross-border terror attacks throughout Europe over the next few years. At this point, several nations came together to ascertain how best to confront the Islamic State’s expansion. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama announced a “comprehensive” strategy to defeat the terror group along with eighty-five other coalition states from every continent. The U.S. contributed roughly 2,000 soldiers to the global coalition and began supporting the establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces by 2015- a group primarily composed of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

Different presidents took different approaches to chemical warfare in Syria

Although then-President Barack Obama initially pledged back in 2012 that the U.S. had “been very clear to the Assad regime—but also to other players on the ground—that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” U.S. troops did not respond to a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) incident until 2017 during the former Trump administration. When a chemical attack killed 88 people in Idlib province this year, American forces launched cruise missiles targeting the position where the chemical attack appeared to originate from. One year later, a second U.S.-launched attack occurred following another chemical attack in the town of Douma.

ISIS sleeper cells remain a threat in Syria

American troops covertly armed and trained Syrian opposition forces in 2015 when the U.S. first officially entered the fight against the Islamic State in the country. The groups that U.S. personnel support ultimately dwindled by 2017 to only include groups directly fighting the terror group. In 2019, America declared that the Islamic State caliphate had been destroyed. However, sleeper cells and other remnants of the terror organization remain a threat. Today, approximately 10,000 Islamic State-affiliated fighters are being held in detention facilities in Syria and even more of their family members are housed in refugee camps.

How many troops withdrew from Syria since 2019?

Back in 2018, then-President Donald Trump revealed his intention to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Syria on Twitter. Within a month of this announcement, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the administration’s special envoy to the global anti-IS coalition resigned in protest. Regardless, by early 2019 the first load of American military cargo had been pulled out of Syria, indicating the onset of the withdrawal process. Around 900 U.S. service members remain in Syria today, a pretty steep decline from the height of the anti-IS coalition a few years earlier.

Earlier this month, the House voted down legislation that directed the White House to withdraw the remaining 900 American troops from Syria within six months. While the proposed resolution was shot down, support is growing in Congress and among the public to end decades-old authorizations for the use of U.S. military force, according to The Associated Press. The remaining U.S. troops are still actively carrying out anti-IS missions. Just last month, a helicopter raid in northeast Syria culminated in the death of a senior ISIS leader in addition to injuring four U.S. Service members.

Iran and its proxies are escalating operations in Syria

While Islamic State sleeper cells remain an active threat in Syria, U.S. personnel have to contend with another increasingly hostile threat in the country: Iranian-backed groups. The U.S. has controlled the al-Tanf base located near the border where Syria, Jordan and Iraq intersect. Over the last few years, Iranian-supported proxy groups have launched hundreds of rocket and drone barrages targeting American facilities and troops at al-Tanf and other locations which house U.S. personnel.

Following last week’s attacks, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East Gen. Erik Kurilla warned that American troops were prepared to launch additional attacks if necessary. After the initial lethal drone attack was launched and killed a U.S. service member, American F-15 fighter jets struck the Iranian-backed groups believed responsible for the drone near Deir el-Zour. In retaliation, 10 rockets were fired targeting a U.S. base known as Green Village. Kurilla cautioned Congress that the Iranian regime is developing increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles and now has an arsenal “that ranges from small, short-range systems to long-range one-way attack platforms.”

Considering the ramp up in tensions between Iran and the U.S., the presence of American troops in Syria is unlikely to change in the near future.

Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.