It has been nearly two years since President Trump first announced a full military withdrawal from Syria.
Instead, U.S. troops, first sent to battle the now-defunct Islamic State group’s “caliphate,” are still there and last week found themselves in a dangerous confrontation with Russian forces that left at least four Americans injured after a vehicle collision in a disputed part of the country.
The stunning incident — video footage of which took social media by storm and left the White House and Pentagon scrambling to explain what happened — has raised fresh questions about the role of U.S. forces in Syria, exactly what the administration hopes to achieve, and what metrics U.S. commanders will use to finally declare victory and follow through on the president’s repeatedly expressed determination to bring all American troops home.
Administration officials stress that the roughly 500 U.S. troops still in Syria are desperately needed to continue the fight against ISIS remnants, protect oil fields, train and assist Kurdish-led allies and act as something of a buffer between the host of actors involved in Syria’s decade of civil war.
What’s unclear, critics say, is exactly how a continued presence there benefits U.S. national security, particularly when tensions between Washington and Moscow are escalating rapidly and could spiral out of control.
“Playing bumper cars with Russians in the Levant serves no vital U.S. national interest. As in numerous past incidents, America was lucky not to lose a soldier in a wholly unnecessary confrontation,” said Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Defense Priorities, a group broadly skeptical of U.S. military missions abroad.
“U.S. troops, together with their Syrian partners and NATO allies, destroyed the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria nearly 18 months ago,” said Mr. Barndollar, who served for seven years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. “Neither counterterrorism raids nor confiscating Syrian oil is a valid reason to maintain this mission. There is no remaining strategic or legal rationale for U.S. forces to remain in Syria. They are long overdue to come home.”
Throughout his term, Mr. Trump has shown that he largely agrees with that view. In late 2018, the president first announced plans to bring home the roughly 2,000 troops stationed in Syria to battle the Islamic State. By that time, the terrorist group had lost nearly all of its physical territory and was a shell of the powerful pseudo army that years earlier controlled huge swaths of land in Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Trump’s decision led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who argued that a pullout would leave America’s Kurdish allies at the mercy of a hostile Turkey. Mr. Mattis has gone on to routinely criticize the president’s policy choices in Syria.
Military leaders and conservative members of Congress ultimately persuaded the president to keep some forces in the country.
In October, Mr. Trump again tried to hasten a U.S. exit from Syria when he ordered American troops to pull back from the Turkish-Syrian border. That decision allowed Turkey to launch its own invasion in order to wage attacks on Syrian resistance groups allied with the U.S. but elements of which Ankara considers to be terrorists.
The president faced widespread criticism for what critics said was the abandonment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been loyal American allies in the yearslong fight against ISIS. The pullback and repositioning of American personnel also paved the way for Russian troops, who have been backing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to seize suddenly unoccupied U.S. military bases in Syria. Critics say the developments have only emboldened Moscow’s forces inside the country.
“None of this was possible before Trump ordered U.S. forces to abandon their facilities, leaving them for the Russian military,” Brett McGurk tweeted last week after the incident between U.S. and Russian forces. Mr. McGurk served as the State Department’s envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS from 2015 to 2018.
“Reminder: these incidents have been ongoing for months. Trump has apparently never raised the issue in multiple calls with Putin. He leaves our troops to fend for themselves,” he said.
Syria’s state-controlled media reported over the weekend that new U.S. convoys of military vehicles and tanker trucks from Iraq had reportedly been seen crossing into Syria to resupply American posts there.
‘Dangerous and unacceptable’
The incident Tuesday was the latest close encounter between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, which operate in close proximity to each other but are expected to adhere to “deconfliction” protocols meant to keep them apart and keep both nations’ troops out of harm’s way.
Pentagon officials said Russian forces violated those protocols and sent vehicles across the established boundaries. One of the Russian vehicles then collided with an American vehicle, as Russian helicopters flew low overhead.
The two countries traded blame in harshly worded statements that suggest neither Washington nor Moscow wants to be seen as backing down.
“The U.S. troops attempted to block the Russian patrol,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement last week. “In response to that, the Russian military police took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.”
Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had another message for the U.S. He said at the military forum in Moscow that Russia was testing a new anti-drone system that, if effective, would be deployed in Syria.
The Pentagon quickly shot back with its own version of events and stressed that American forces won’t sit idly by if they are put in danger.
“We commend our personnel on the ground for de-escalating this unfortunate encounter through professionalism and restraint, which are hallmarks of the U.S. military,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. “We have advised the Russians that their behavior was dangerous and unacceptable. We expect a return to routine and professional deconfliction in Syria and reserve the right to defend our forces vigorously whenever their safety is put at risk.”
The administration has argued that it has several tangible objectives in Syria, though there does not appear to be a clear time frame to achieve them. The “enduring defeat” of ISIS, officials have said, is the top priority and necessitates at least a small troop presence inside Syria to train and assist allies such as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In addition, U.S. forces provide security for oil fields in northeastern Syria that are now sources of revenue for the Kurdish-led SDF.
The administration also wants to have leverage in talks on a lasting political settlement that ends a decade of civil war and brings at least some semblance of stability to the country. Another of its tangible goals is to rid Syria of all proxy forces backed by the Iranian government, which has allied itself with Russia and Mr. Assad.
Top administration officials note that the messy situation inside Syria — with numerous militaries, terrorist groups and proxy forces operating in close proximity — can be resolved only through peaceful political processes.
“This is an extremely volatile, extremely dangerous situation,” Ambassador James Jeffrey, the administration’s special representative for Syria and envoy to the global anti-ISIS coalition, told reporters this month. He argued that a Geneva meeting last week of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, a group formed to amend the country’s constitution, is a key step forward. The group includes representatives from the Assad regime, civil society and opposition forces.
“We will urge all sides, including the regime, to continue this process,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “This is the way out of the terrible predicament — economic, military, diplomatic — that they find themselves in.”