What is the Point of the U.S. Military Presence in Syria?

What is the Point of the U.S. Military Presence in Syria?

Nine hundred American troops are stationed in Syria without strategic purpose or congressional authorization.

Members of the U.S. military are sitting ducks in the Middle East, and in December 2023, eighty-four members of the Senate voted to keep them there because fewer U.S. troops in the Middle East could be a gift to Iran. In early December, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) brought forth a bill to remove 900 U.S. troops from Syria amid the barrage of drone attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan by Iranian-backed militias. Roughly a month after that vote, a drone attack on Tower 22 in Jordan killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more. After the deadly January 28 attack, the Biden administration found itself trying to balance an impossible scale. How could it satisfy political pressure without inadvertently escalating tensions into a regional conflict?

On the surface, removing U.S. troops due to rising instability seems counterintuitive, but the question of reducing the number of troops is emblematic of a larger problem. The soldiers were initially deployed to a location without congressional authorization and remained there long after their original military mission was accomplished. The U.S. presence in Syria is part of a U.S.-led coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), which began in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Congress did not specifically approve OIR since the Obama administration relied on the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as a legal justification. By bypassing Congress, the Obama administration circumvented Congressional oversight mechanisms and a framework that may have established clearer guidelines for concluding OIR.

Since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) regained control of Al-Baghouz in 2019, the United States declared that ISIS had been defeated but made no moves to reduce troop presence. OIR is still active, but instead of fighting to regain ISIS-held territory, the mission has shifted to the broader goal of ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS. The United States already has a mechanism to prime the SDF to counter ISIS activities, the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF), a program passed by Congress in 2014 to train, advise, and fund Syrian and Iraqi security forces. This perceived redundancy begs the question of whether or not troops deployed under OIR are necessary for preventing an immediate resurgence of ISIS or if a gradual reduction of troops coupled with continued CTEF support would be just as effective.

The drone strikes by militia groups and retaliatory strikes by the United States are also increasing tensions between the United States and Iraq. In response to the February 7 retaliatory drone strike that killed a senior member of Kataib Hezbollah, a spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani, Yahya Rasool, called the U.S. presence in Iraq “a factor for instability” which “threatens to entangle Iraq in the cycle of conflict.”  The statement indicates a shift in perspective for Iraq and other host countries. Even though the U.S. troop presence initially provided stability against the threat of ISIS, the continued presence represents an opportunity for local militia groups to target Americans. On February 14, the United Arab Emirates imposed restrictions aimed at preventing the United States from launching retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian proxies from U.S. military bases in the UAE.

With the relationship between the United States and partner countries in the Middle East under strain due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and Iranian-backed militias targeting U.S. forces, it is time for the Biden administration and members of Congress to ask themselves if the existing troop presence is worth losing more American lives while also risking a broader war in the Middle East. Furthermore, the Department of Defense must reevaluate the goals and scope of ongoing troop deployments to the Middle East. Even if continued cooperation with partner security forces is essential for preventing a resurgence of ISIS, the Biden administration should consider options that avoid asking American troops to dodge rocket and drone attacks far from home.

Bree Megivern has a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. Her areas of interest are U.S. foreign policy, transatlantic security cooperation, and global development.

Image: Shutterstock.com.