U.S. Keeps Residual Force in Syria, Reassures Kurds

The U.S. has decided to keep a small force in Syria. (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. has decided to keep a small force in Syria. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Pentagon will retain a limited military presence in Syria, diverging from its initial exit strategy. Al-Monitor reports that a 400-troop peacekeeping force will be split evenly between northeast Syria and the al-Tanf training facility, which borders Iraq.

After President Trump announced military withdrawal from Syria last December, the United States’ Kurdish allies feared abandonment on the brink of eliminating the Islamic State (ISIS) from eastern Syria. Syrian-Kurdish forces have relied heavily on American weaponry and training, but the U.S. has struggled to unite anti-ISIS forces across ethnic lines. The Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) operates under the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG), but has enlisted the help of Arab militias whose military objectives do not always align with Kurdish goals. As a result, internal factionalism remains an obstacle that might intensify without U.S. guidance.  

The Pentagon’s plan indicates ISIS is no longer the primary threat in Syria. While the peacekeeping force will be stationed in northeast Syria to protect SDF forces from Turkey, the plan makes no provisions for the eastern frontier, where Kurdish leaders have reduced the ISIS threat to a single stronghold.

Linda Robinson, a senior researcher at the RAND corporation, told Al-Monitor, “This project was primarily compelled, [and] propelled, by the US and international coalition agenda of defeating [the Islamic State]. The core objective of the Syrian Kurds is otherwise.” Now, the U.S. must adapt to changing Kurdish goals if it wishes to remain in the region.

Ultimately, the U.S. re-commitment to Syria does little to mitigate Kurdish fears of a potential Islamic State rebound in the east, though it accounts for evolving regional threats. The 400 peacekeepers will continue sponsoring Kurdish military training and will construct a safe zone to prevent Turkish intrusion in the northeast, which appears to be the SDF’s primary concern. Increased U.S. presence will protect the SDF in the northeast and provide instruction for Kurdish militants, but withholding anti-ISIS support in the east might prove to be costly.