The Trump administration is expanding its goals in Syria beyond routing ISIS to include a political settlement of the country’s civil war, according to The Washington Post. US staying in the country is sure to draw ire from Syria and Iran.
The US officials say they are hoping to use the presence of American troops in Syria to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad’s forces with aid from Iran regained control over much of the country. US withdrawal could complete Assad’s sweep of Syrian territory and help guarantee his political survival, The Washington Post says, and would strengthen Iran’s influence in the region, an undesirable outcome for the US.
To avoid that outcome, US officials say they plan to maintain a US troop presence in northern Syria — where the Americans have trained and assisted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that opposes both al-Assad’s government and ISIS — and establish new local governance, apart from the al-Assad government, in those areas.
US officials also emphasized that an ongoing US military presence in Syria is necessary to ensure that ISIS remnants are mopped up and that repopulated communities are stabilized under local governance. “The fight with ISIS is not over,” one official said.
The official number of US troops currently deployed to Syria is 503, sent to train and assist the SDF. The actual number is believed to be far higher, including hundreds of additional Special Operations forces, forward air controllers, artillery crews and others sent for months-long temporary deployments.
According to Nicholas Heras of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, the plans for a continuing troop presence indicate a shift in mission from defeating ISIS to a strategy aimed at countering Iranian influence. “The conditions are there for the counter-ISIS campaign to morph into a counter-Iran campaign,” he said. “The US has no master plan to stay, but isn’t in any hurry to leave either,” he said. “By placing no timeline on the end of the US mission . . . the Pentagon is creating a framework for keeping the US engaged in Syria for years to come.”