Since the US Military fully engaged and defeated ISIS in Syria and Iraq during former President Trump’s administration, America has had troops within Syria’s borders. The presence of US soldiers in Syria gives America’s partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, confidence in rooting out and defeating ISIS and other violent extremist organizations, like Iran-backed militias. Having an American presence also keeps Iran from growing its influence in the region. US operations in Syria are often dynamic and involve many dangerous players. But as the expression goes, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
Inspector General’s Report on Syria Details Complexity
US activities in Iraq and Syria fall under the name Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR. In the most recent quarterly report to Congress, the lead inspector general (Lead IG) indicated what US forces are up against. The report explained some of the complexity, pointing out:
“Türkiye, Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime continued to impact the OIR campaign. Iran-aligned militias escalated hostilities towards US and Coalition forces in Syria during the quarter, including unmanned aerial system (UAS) attacks in March that killed one US contractor and wounded 25 US personnel, prompting US defensive action.”
There are approximately 900 American military personnel supporting OIR in Syria with an annual budget of nearly $500 million. Their mission, put simply, is to “advise, assist, and enable partner forces until they can independently ensure the enduring defeat (of) ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria.” However, the challenges to completing that mission are not simple. “During the quarter, Iranian and Russian forces – both partners of the Syrian regime – conducted provocative activities against Coalition and US forces, including deadly Iranian airstrikes on US bases,” the Lead IG analysis reported.
“Russia looks to expand its influence in Syria, seeking permanent basing there and undermining our efforts toward stability and security in the region,” US Army General Michael Kurilla, commander of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16. “Syria is very important to Russia … Russia looks to expand its influence in Syria, seeking permanent basing … So they (the Russians) – fly over our bases with ground-attack aircraft in an attempt to try and be provocative,” General Kurilla explained. Such provocations are not new. US special operations ground forces engaged in actual combat with Moscow’s mercenaries in 2018, which only recently came to light. Kevin Maurer, co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden, reported for The War Horse on May 11, 2023:
“Around 500 pro-Syrian government forces, including Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, launched a nearly four-hour attack on a small group of 40 American Special Operations troops and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies at a Conoco natural gas refinery in eastern Syria. The Wagner Group seized oil and gas fields in Syria to protect them for the Assad government, with mercenaries earning a share of production proceeds, according to American intelligence officials.”
The outcome of the engagement with the American military left no doubt as to who the better fighters were. “They tore us to pieces…They beat our asses like we were little pieces of s–t,” a Wagner Group fighter recalled on a recording. There have been no further reports of Wagner Group encounters with US forces. However, just because no encounters have been reported doesn’t mean there haven’t been any.
Self-inflicted Troubles in Syria
If Iranian missile attacks, Russian fighter provocative maneuvers, and ISIS attacks aren’t enough trouble for US troops in Syria, there are self-inflicted problems. Recent press reports reveal a US Central Command-sanctioned drone strike erroneously claimed to have killed an al-Qaeda leader. “Officials boasted about the success of the operation,” according to CNN’s Eyad Kourdi. Unfortunately, it appears the person killed, Loutfi Hassan Mesto, was not an al-Qaeda terrorist – unless the terrorist group is moonlighting as shepherds. “Mesto was herding sheep in the village of Qurqaniya in Idlib province the morning of Wednesday, May 3, when his brother said he heard blasts and rushed to the site,” Kourdi reported. Mesto had no organization affiliations and was trying to make a living for his family of ten children. A similar event occurred during the Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. A USCENTCOM drone strike killed an innocent civilian and his family in Kabul.
Though hostilities in Syria do not get the press coverage US efforts in the Indo-Pacific or Ukraine garner, American military forces are engaged daily in the Middle East hotspot. ISIS operations have been significantly degraded, and US forces in Syria are much of the reason. At some point, however, the US must answer an important question. Is the persistent presence of American soldiers just another “forever” military mission? Relying on long-distance drone operations with the resulting potential for collateral damage must be weighed against the benefit. If keeping ISIS and other terrorist organizations in check is the objective, boots on the ground may be the default answer.
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Liberty Nation.
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