U.S. Troops in Syria Are Critical For Multiple Missions: Keep Them On

Bradleys in Syria

The Middle East has long been defined by complex conflicts, yet pride of place is likely Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. U.S. forces, operating there since 2014, officially against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are involved in one of the more perplexing elements of that conflict.

The long-standing debate within and outside of recent administrations over whether those forces should remain has gained new life with the Iranian-backed militia attack on Tower 22, a support base in Jordan for U.S. Syria forces operating just over the border. Following that attack, Thanassis Cambanis, writing in these pages, urged that those forces all be withdrawn from Syria. Unlike others who advocate for withdrawal, he recognizes the continued threat from ISIL, but he discounts fully the other geostrategic purpose for the force presence: contesting Iran.

I served as then-Secretary of State Pompeo’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State. I believe that Cambanis’ solution for combating ISIL after the withdrawal of U.S. forces will not work.



I also believe Cambanis is wrong about Iran and is too certain of the inevitability of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. I do agree with his recommendations on reducing somewhat the U.S. presence in Iraq. In Syria, the United States should maintain its forces, withdrawing only when the underlying Syrian situation that led to their deployment improves. As an interim measure, Washington should work with Ankara on a reduced, sustainable American presence and more stable relations between the United States, Turkey, and America’s Kurdish-led allies.

The U.S. Presence in Syria

U.S. troops in Syria are officially part of an 80-nation American-led Defeat Islamic State Coalition headquartered in Iraq. They operate legally under the 2001 Congressional Authorization for Use of Force resolution. American troops first entered northeast Syria in 2014. Their mission was to back a Syrian Kurdish force known as the Peoples’ Protection Units and, later, the Syrian Democratic Forces, battling the Islamic State after the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lost control of that region. The scope and role of the U.S. deployment from the get-go have been confusingYet the U.S. war effort has been enormously successful in fighting ISIL, as well as in contesting Iranian and Russian ambitions in Syria and beyond. This confusion begins with the Assad regime’s opposition to the deployment, even though its mission was to fight the Islamic State, which the Assad regime was also ostensibly fighting. The U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurds was also problematic because the People’s Protection Units are the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Turkish Kurdish terrorist/separatist movement. The U.S. deployment was at first tolerated, then opposed, by the Turkish government.

U.S. forces, with their Syrian partners, soon controlled all of northeast Syria, along with a small garrison along the Iraqi and Jordanian borders dubbed Tanf. This garrison is supported by the troops at Tower 22, some of whom were recently killed in the Iranian-linked attack. I believe that the U.S. presence at Tanf and Tower 22 has effectively blocked the Assad regime from completing the defeat of the anti-government opposition in the Syrian desert. The base has also cut ground transportation links with Iran. But it is this secondary outcome that has gained both significance and controversy with the outbreak of Iranian surrogate attacks following Oct. 7. 

A Better Way Forward in Syria

Cambanis makes three key points in support of his call for U.S. forces to be withdrawn from Syria. The first point is that a partnership between Assad and the U.S. partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, could assume the counter-ISIL role. The challenge here is that any such compromise would not allow for the survival of the U.S. partner forces’ autonomous governance and security entity in northeast Syria. The dissolution of Kurdish governance would, of course, be welcomed in Turkey but would complicate broader U.S. efforts to pressure Iran.

Cambanis also argued that United States does not have a role in containing Iran in Syria and that a U.S. withdrawal is inevitable sooner or later. “The clock is ticking,” he writes, predicting that either a Donald Trump administration or even President Joseph Biden within the next year would pull the troops. I disagree with his first two points and believe that the United States in the end could well keep troops in Syria, and certainly should.

A U.S. ground presence in northeast Syria is vital for keeping ISIL under control, not only in that large area, but also throughout Syria, a mission that Cambanis acknowledges is still important. The U.S. government uses northeast Syria as its platform for intelligence collection and for raids against the Islamic State’s leadership in parts of Syria controlled by Assad. It also justifies the critical mission of controlling airspace over northeast Syria and at Tanf based on providing force protection to the troops on the ground below.

The United States and its local partners also detained 5,000 ISIL prisoners and 50,000 indoctrinated ISIL family members capable of reigniting the group’s growth if somehow freed. None of this could be effectively accomplished if the U.S. military was not on the ground, based on real-world analysis in which this writer participated when the Trump administration weighed withdrawal in 2018 and 2019. Furthermore, a U.S. military withdrawal would open the northeast to Russian, Iranian, and Assad forces. Under such conditions, the Syrian Democratic Forces would be hard pressed to survive, let alone effectively fight ISIL.

Cambanis’ solution, a possibly American-brokered Assad–Syrian Kurdish partnership against ISIL, is not feasible. I know this from my experience. The Syrian Kurdish leadership has been negotiating for years with Damascus on day-after American withdrawal scenarios with no progress. The Assad regime, be it with the Syrian Democratic Forces or the Syrian Arab-majority opposition, has shown no flexibility at any point over the past 13 years of internal strife with much of its population. Moreover, the Assad regime has been notoriously feckless fighting ISIL, and that terrorist group effectively holds terrain in the Badiya desert south of the Euphrates River despite joint Assad, Russian, and Iranian counter-terrorism operations.

Furthermore, ethnic Sunni Arab concentrations in northeast Syria such as Raqqa and Deir as Zor now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces were the breeding ground for the group initially. Moreover, the United States stumbledmiserably the last time it tried diplomacy with Assad, in 2013, concerning chemical weapons use. Recent diplomatic initiatives on Syria by the Arab League and Turkey to find common ways forward on Syria’s myriad problems also have come to naught, due again to Assad’s terminal inflexibility.

The Challenges with a Withdrawal

A U.S. withdrawal would also undercut the security interests of many of America’s most important European and Middle Eastern partners. NATO member states in the Defeat Islamic State Coalition raised highest level concerns with the U.S. government when the Trump administration twice ordered the troops withdrawn, arguing that they could again face devastating ISIL attacks on their populations as seen in 2015 and 2016 in Paris, Cannes, Brussels, and Berlin. As Omer Ozkizilcik recently wrote for the Atlantic Council, the vacuum in northeast Syria following an American withdrawal would be a security nightmare for Ankara, a critical partner against both Iran and Russia, with the Syrian Democratic Forces and associated Kurdistan Workers’ Party, ISIL, Iranian, Russian, and Assad regime elements all vying for control. Even worse, a possible Turkish military move to fill that vacuum, leading likely to combat with the Kurds, would violate a ceasefire signed in October 2019 and spark another huge crisis with Washington.

The commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, in a February interview with Asharq al Awsaat, underlined the importance of a continued U.S. presence in northeast Syria, warning of “chaos in the region” if the United States did pull out. He also rejected out of hand the possibility of an accommodation with Assad, denying that the Biden administration was pressuring him to do so, and described the bad relations between the Syrian Kurds and the government in Damascus. His words bear special weight, given his extraordinary success as an American partner against ISIL, and the esteem in which he is held in Washington and elsewhere.

Cambanis is correct in a formal sense in arguing that the United States is not in Syria to fight Iran (although the Iranian regime believes that it has long been in an irregular war against America largely through surrogates to overthrow the regional security system). But a military deployment does not have to fight to have an impact on security, particularly given the centrality of the Iranian threat to the region, above all since Oct. 7. In fact, most of America’s military operations since World War II have involved not fighting but presence missions, to deny terrain, buttress allies, and show commitment and forward readiness for combat. This presence-not-necessarily-fight approach remains the recipe for much of today’s strategic competition and extended deterrence as promulgated in the Biden administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy.

The Case for Pushing Back Against Iran

The military presence in Syria, along with coordination with Israeli airstrikes and Turkish military operations in northwest Syria begun by the Trump administration and continued by President Biden, has undercut Iranian ambitions. This includes blocking Iran’s efforts to turn Syria into a second southern Lebanon full of missiles aimed at Israel, and freezing the Syrian civil war short of an Assad victory, thereby requiring continuing costly Iranian economic and military support to the regime. Finally, the U.S. presence in Tanf on the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border cuts one of the main Teheran-to-Beirut land corridors.

Anyone questioning the value of this secondary mission should ask why Washington’s regional adversaries have been so eager to end it, ranging from numerous attacks by Assad’s forces from 2017 on, to the Wagner mercenary assault across the Euphrates in 2018 and the more recent Iranian surrogate attacks that Cambanis describes.

One reason Cambanis and others question the efficacy, even the reality, of this mission is that it involves indirect quasi-political action characteristic of presence missions, as opposed to direct combat such as against ISIL. But ambiguity about America’s regional deterrence mission against Iran, and its application to Syria, further complicates analysis. While U.S. Central Command lists Iran as its number one challenge, the Biden administration has not been clear, either in policy or in actions, on contesting Iran’s march through the region, from Gaza and Lebanon to Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Absent such clarity, U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and coalition partners all focus on the counter-ISIL effort and not on containing Iran and proxies, for reasons ranging from practical military to political, in the case of Baghdad, loosely aligned with Iran.

Don’t Leave — Rather, Adjust and Leverage

Cambanis is correct in asserting that the administration is eying withdrawal, but a final decision to do so should not be assumed. Plans for withdrawal first bubbled up in 2018 but were quickly squashed. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the rest of the Defeat ISIL Coalition are opposed to withdrawal, as is the U.S. Senate, which in December voted down by 84 to 13 an initiative to withdraw troops. Analysts (including this writer) have been told no withdrawal decision has been taken, and Mazloum in the above-cited interview states he has been assured by U.S. officials about troops remaining.

But an even more critical argument against the United States withdrawing is its engagement in strategic competition for the future of the international order, as laid out in the 2022 National Security Strategy. The dramatic international response to the Afghanistan withdrawal made clear that pulling back American troops from a battlefield, however justified (and the arguments for leaving Afghanistan were better than those for leaving Syria), tanks American credibility and ultimately deterrence. Would the U.S. government really, in the midst of a near-conflict with Iran and questioning of America’s commitment to Ukraine, want to pull the plug on what has been a successful, low-cost mission, despite the recent casualties?

Washington to be sure should do better in explaining the rationale for the Syrian presence and own up to the mission of containing Iran. But in the end, regardless of justification, Americans will remain skittish about under-fire presence missions, and calls to end deployments, including in Syria, will continue. Thus, the public needs to know the “end game” for those troops. That would require calming, through implementation of the 2015 U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, the underlying Syrian conflict that has produced ISIL, Iranian intervention, and various threats to American partners. The United Nations as well as the Arab League have been pressing Assad to implement that resolution, so far in vain. But the Assad government and its most potent backer, Russia, face a frozen conflict and an ever-worse Syrian economy. The United States could engage forcefully with Moscow to back United Nations and Arab efforts using leverage, from sanctions and diplomatic efforts to an eventual troop withdrawal offer, to work a comprehensive deal.

In the interim, Washington and Ankara, now enjoying improved relations, could better coordinate policies toward Syria, including the U.S. presence and the future of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This could include deepening of the October 2019 ceasefire involving the United States, Turkey, and the Kurds, ultimately returning to the coordination against ISIL among the three in 2014–15, and thereby allow withdrawal of much of the U.S. force while maintaining each actor’s key security interests.



James F. Jeffrey is the Slater Family fellow and chair, Middle East Program, at the Wilson Center. In a 37-year Foreign Service career, he served as ambassador to Albania, Turkey, and Iraq, chief of mission, Syria, envoy to the Defeat ISIL Coalition, and deputy national security advisor.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory