It's Time to Get out of Syria

November 3, 2023 Topic: Syria Region: Middle East Tags: SyriaU.S. MilitaryEndless WarsRussiaIran

It's Time to Get out of Syria

U.S. Military deployments in this troubled country put lives at risk for little strategic benefit.


The United States military presence in Syria has placed our troops in the middle of rising tensions between local adversaries while also sitting in the crossfire of multiple escalating regional conflicts. The argument for leaving Syria becomes clear once adversarial drivers and America’s questionable interests are broadly examined.

As the Russia-Ukraine War continues with no end in sight, Moscow has for eight years sent extensive resources and manpower to Damascus. Russian president Vladimir Putin has aided Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in eliminating his regime’s opponents. Putin sent troops to Syria and began airstrikes in 2015 to combat ISIS at Assad’s request. Still, since the Ukrainian war and American deployment on Syrian soil, Russia must divert hard power back to its own frontlines.


Iran has fought alongside Russia throughout much of the Syrian Civil War. It has launched its own efforts to keep Assad in power by sending thousands of armed personnel to serve as military advisors, guards, special forces, and frontline troops. Iran shares ideological interests with Syria, which also cooperates with Shia militant groups in Iraq and Lebanon. To simplify decades of history, after the 1979 revolution deposed the Shah, the country’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, signaled his intention to export the revolution across the Islamic world. Iran’s regional partners form what is colloquially known as the “Axis of Resistance.” They view their conflict with the West as a righteous struggle against foreign invaders and influences.

Just north of Syria lies another two actors who also view their conflict as an existential struggle: Turkey and the Kurds. It is generally known that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbors “neo-Ottoman” ambitions to reclaim prestige and territory. What is less known is that Turkey occupied parts of Iraq thirty years ago to target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant political organization and armed guerrilla movement that currently operates in the region. The PKK’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, led an insurgency from 1984 until his capture by the Turkish government. His successors continued to demand an independent Kurdish state. Today, the PKK has a recorded presence in Northeast Syria and has been involved in recent clashes that have endangered American troops and local inhabitants. The U.S. State Department labeled the PKK a terrorist organization in 1997.

Washington has differentiated its relationship with the Kurds through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The United States partnered with the SDF in 2014, and their ties persisted beyond the threat of the Islamic State in Northeastern Syria.

There are five additional actors currently active in Syria. The SDF serves as an umbrella force for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women's Protection Units (YPJ), and the Syrian Military Council (SMC) and is the leading force of the mega-coalition composed of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian/Syriac, and smaller Armenian, Turkmen, and Chechen constituents. The majority of remnants from these groups are now in Europe as migrants. Turkey, allied with its auxiliary Syrian National Army (SNA), aims to create a “safe zone” with an understated presence in the north. The Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (the Democratic Union Party, PYD) complicates U.S. objectives in the region due to its controversial relationship with the PKK.

To combat the growing presence of ISIS in 2014, President Barack Obama partnered with the SDF as an adopted strategy to eradicate extremists from the region while simultaneously avoiding the mass deployment of U.S. soldiers. This was a temporary solution for the long-term operation, which overlooked the fact that a controversial history with Turkey haunts the SDF’s sub-factions.

Tensions between Turkey and the PKK escalated more recently when PKK militants originating from Syria claimed responsibility for detonating a bomb in Ankara on October 1. In response, four days later, Turkey launched an offensive in northeast Syria that considered the YPG militia and PKK as “legitimate targets” for its campaign. The same YPG that the SDF, a U.S. ally, oversaw in Al-Hasakah. The attack on October 5 killed forty-four people, including security personnel and civilians. On the same day, the U.S. military shot down an armed Turkish drone 500 meters from American troops, which was deemed “appropriate action to protect U.S. forces” despite “no indication that [our fellow NATO ally] was intentionally targeting U.S. forces.”

In summary, Turkey, espousing Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman irredentism, is attempting to reconquer designated territories for the Turkish nation that includes modern parts of Syria. This expansion stands in conflict with a terrorist organization that seeks political ends through violence. This is where American military personnel stand right at this very moment.

What is the United States doing in Syria? U.S. forces are currently stationed in northeastern Syria under Operation Inherent Resolve to complete the lasting fight against ISIS, according to a U.S. Central Command statement last year.

The fight against ISIS culminated this past July when the United States conducted a strike in Syria that killed Usamah al-Muhajir, one of its leaders in Eastern Syria. Though this is a significant win, America has expressed that it will not leave the country until the whole group has been eliminated. This oddly counters statements that the ISIS caliphate was defeated, including in the New York Times and by President Donald Trump, who famously held up a map of the evaporated ISIS caliphate.

The United States actually shares a common desire to eliminate ISIS with Russia and Syria, who claim lost territory in the northeast; Iran, whom ISIS has attacked at home; and the Kurds, who are seeking territorial integrity. However, U.S. troops also sit on the perilous highway running between Baghdad and Damascus inside Syria and train the Revolutionary Commando Army. This coalition, known as the “Al-Tanf Garrison,” differs from the SDF-U.S. alliance.

Every day, Americans should ask their policy leaders what strategic victory looks like in Syria. Moreover, Americans should ask their policy leaders if they have a plan to stop the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey, from aggressive tactics, putting American lives in danger and supporting groups that were once part of Al Qaeda.

Turkey supports HTS, a coalition of northern Syria-based Sunni Islamist insurgent groups that evolved from Al Qaeda’s former branch in Syria. HTS has de facto administrative authority in Idlib and mainly targets the Assad government. Still, more recently, its leader called for retaliatory attacks against the U.S.-led coalition in response to American airstrikes in Syria. HTS is generally opposed to the other military and rebel factions in northwest Syria and has clashed with the Syrian National Army, which is also allied with Turkey. This leaves HTS in an awkward position that forces it to remain in the Idlib province it captured in a notable 2019 attack against the National Front for Liberation. One thing is sure: Americans remain a target on HTS’ list.

The situation is becoming more complex as the shadow war between Iran, Iranian-backed Shia militant groups and Israel escalates. Last month, Israeli strikes simultaneously shut down two main airports in Aleppo and Damascus shortly before a delegation of Iranian lawmakers was allegedly set to visit the country to meet with Palestinian militants. This also came only hours after two key events: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s phone call with Assad to discuss Arab and Islamic cooperation to counter Israel. It also marked the sixth day of Israel trading fire with Hamas after Hamas gunmen breached the Gazan border and killed 1,400

Syria and Iran are longtime political and military allies, and their alliance has fostered increased dependency on mutual trade, credit lines, and military support. Assad has said that Israel’s strikes are justified under the guise of Iran’s presence but continue to target the Syrian army. Considering that Iran is a longtime enemy of the United States, the two are bound to clash on Syrian terrain. This was proven earlier this year when President Joe Biden released a warning to Tehran after Iran-backed militias attacked and killed an American contractor. Biden stated that America does not want war with Iran, but any violence directed toward American troops would be met with retaliation. The continued violence today highlights the obvious risk for escalation over matters such as Iran’s nuclear program, proxy militias, and its supplication of military technology to Russia amidst the war in Ukraine.

America’s leaders should recognize that there are several major intra-group conflicts occurring in Syria, including those between:

1) the Assad government, Russia, Iran, and Iranian-backed Shia Groups vs. various Syrian opposition forces (including HTS and other Turkish-backed groups)

2) the United States, SDF, Iran, Russia, and the Assad government vs. ISIS

3) Turkey vs. the PKK

4) Turkey vs. the SDF (and the United States indirectly)

5) Israel and the United States vs. Iran, Iranian-backed Shia-militant groups, and the Assad government

6) the Assad government, Russia, and Iran vs. the Revolutionary Commando Army and the United States (at the “Al-Tanf Garrison”)

7) the United States vs. Russia (a generally cold conflict, despite occasional fighting between the U.S. military and the Russian Wagner Group)