US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an address to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) this week that the US would not help fund the reconstruction of Syria as long as Iran and militias loyal to Tehran are in the country.
He added that the administration of US President Donald Trump wanted to see a political solution to the conflict, but “Iranian forces and those supported by Iran [must] leave Syria for good. If Syria does not guarantee the complete withdrawal of Iran-backed forces, it will not receive a single dollar from the US for rebuilding.”
US National Security Adviser John Bolton had earlier said in September that “we will not leave until Iranian troops are outside Syria’s borders, including Iran’s allies and their armed militias.”
The French newspaper Le Parisien also quoted US officials discussing a permanent US military position in Syria, or at least until Iran and its allies in the shape of Shia militias exit the country.
This declaration and the US escalation appear to show the US wanting to push political change in Syria, but they do not mention any mechanism that would obligate Iran to leave the country.
In January 2018, former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson set out US policy on the Syrian crisis and the Middle East in general.
He said that US troops would remain in Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iran, and that their presence served US “national interests.”
Al-Assad’s “departure” from power as part of a peace process led by the UN “will create a climate of permanent peace,” Tillerson said, adding that free and fair elections with the participation of those who had fled the Syrian conflict would lead to the departure of Al-Assad and his family for good.
He accused Al-Assad of turning Syria into a lackey of Iran, stressing that “Iran will not be allowed to come any closer to its main goal of controlling the region.”
This week’s announcement was not the first time that US officials have hinted at an extended US presence in Syria.
Washington earlier sent some 2,000 soldiers into the country as part of the international war on IS, and in January the Pentagon announced that the US would continue its military presence in Syria “as long as necessary” to prevent the return of IS jihadists.
These earlier statements by US officials are similar to those being made today, which again sends a message to Russia that its attempts to circumvent the UN and to involve Iran in a solution or create a Turkish-Russian alliance will come up against US opposition.
The US will not entirely abandon its alliance with Turkey since the latter is ranked 17th among the world’s economies and has one of the largest armies in the Middle East.
In Syria, Turkey controls armed opposition groups that dominate a key portion of the north of the country, and supplies would not reach the 2,000 US soldiers based in northeast Syria without land and air routes from Turkey.
Washington understands that Ankara is keen on continuing its military occupation of northern Syria as a barrier in the face of separatist Kurdish fighters.
The US does not object to this even though it has been making tactical moves that have troubled Turkey.
“Our alliance with Turkey is not superficial,” Tillerson said earlier this year. “It is not about temporary interests. It is an alliance that is time-tested and had been built on joint interests and mutual respect.”
“From now on, the US and Turkey will not act individually,” which was why the US and Turkey had created a mechanism for conflict-resolution in order to “reach middle ground on contentious issues and bolster relations between the two countries,” the US and Turkish media have said.
The US declaration that it would not leave Syria has led to relations with Turkey gradually warming as Ankara had attempted to join the US against Russia. The tough US stance on Russia’s boundaries in Syria and on Iran have helped improve US relations with Turkey.
A US congressional delegation has visited Turkey to try to convince Turkey’s leadership to abandon its S-400 missile deal with Russia in return for a shipment of F35 planes despite a congressional decision banning the sale of these fighter jets to Turkey.
It appears that the US is trying to redefine the Turkish-US alliance because this would facilitate its permanent presence in Syria.
Both countries share key interests that will likely prevent them from drifting apart. The US cannot contain Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East by relying on Israel alone, for example, and it wants to see a Turkish role.
The US declaration of an open-ended war in Syria should worry the Syrian opposition, especially since it means a political solution has been kicked down the road or does not exist on the US agenda.
The US presence will make the regional and international players present in Syria continue their unending war, increasing the direct and indirect confrontations between these players.
This is especially the case since the Iranian presence in Syria over the past two years has changed from boots on the ground to the infiltration of Syrian society.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unending war in Syria