The US has announced that it will maintain a military presence in Syria indefinitely as long as there are Iranian forces and Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups present in the country, in a move that is being read by analysts as meaning that a political solution to the conflict in Syria has also been indefinitely postponed.
The announcement by Washington also means disconnecting the presence of US military forces in Syria with the elimination of IS, many analysts believe.
On 15 November, US Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said US troops would remain in Syria after coalition troops had defeated IS to “guarantee that [the group] does not make a comeback”.
By reminding the world of its strategy in Syria, the US is sending a message to Russia and others that Moscow’s attempts to include Iran in a solution to the crisis in the country or create a Turkish-Russian alliance will fail without the green light from the US.
Such messages ebb and flow depending on international circumstances and how close or distant the US and Russia are from each other.
The messages are sometimes conciliatory, as when Jeffrey stated on 20 November that the US administration does not oppose “Russian interests” in Syria, including the need for “a friendly government” and “military bases”.
However, sometimes they are more firm, with the US telling Russia that it must cooperate with the US in ending the conflict in Syria and that the Russian-sponsored Astana Process “is not a substitute for the [UN-sponsored] political process.”
The US has major strategic goals in remaining in Syria. As well as fighting IS and preventing Iran from expanding its influence in the region, the US also wants to prevent Syria from turning into a failed state.
It wants to ensure the continuation of the current balance of power in the region and protect the interests of its Israeli ally.
US interests are served by disconnecting Syria from Iraq and preventing Iran from encroaching eastwards or establishing a land corridor connecting Tehran and Beirut in a so-called “Shiite Crescent” in the Middle East.
It also wants to monitor the production or use of chemical and other weapons, whether by the Syrian regime or others.
There are also economic reasons for the continuing US presence, with the US controlling the areas where the majority of Syrian oil wells and gas reserves are located.
There are financial benefits for the US from the Gulf countries that are funding the US military operations in Syria, indicated by US President Donald Trump in April.
“The US intervention in Syria is expensive and serves the interests of other countries. If you want us to stay, perhaps you should pay,” Trump said, addressing Saudi Arabia, which benefits from the US remaining in Syria to offset Iranian influence in the region.
Since the US announced the formation of an International Coalition against IS in 2014, it has increased its military involvement in Syria and now has several military bases there, including large and smaller ones that serve to support the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Forces (KDF), the US’s main ally in Syria.
In November 2014, head of the US joint chiefs of staff Kenneth McKenzie said there were only 500 US soldiers in Syria, but US media such as the news channel CNN have quoted military officials as saying there are 2,000 US soldiers in Syria, most of them special forces.
In March 2018, the Russian media quoted a member of the Russian security services as saying that the US had some 20 military bases in Syria in regions under Kurdish control.
The US says it does not use these bases to launch attacks, but to provide support for its allies and train Syrian fighters to defend bases in the east of the country.
It does not need to launch attacks from these bases since it already has others in Turkey and the Mediterranean. Its presence at these bases in Syria is simply meant to indicate the areas under US control.
Various US Congressmen have questioned the need for further US involvement in the Syrian conflict, as well as the hazards of US military bases and the feasibility of the US’s risky alliance with the Kurds at the expense of its ties with Turkey, a NATO member.
The US’s alliance with the Syrian Kurds includes Kurdish secessionists affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, viewed as the Syrian arm of the Turkish Kurdish party the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey.
The alliance has undermined Turkish-US relations, and the Turks have been putting pressure on the KDF and supporting Syrian opposition forces to prevent it from taking control of the north of Syria, which Ankara considers would be a threat to Turkey’s national security.
The US has been silent about Turkey bombing Kurdish troops, saying that it has a “military” and not “political” alliance with the Kurds and rejects their secessionist plans from the rest of the country.
Although the US is backing the Kurdish forces, it is unlikely to abandon its alliance with Turkey, which has one of the largest armies in the Middle East and controls tens of thousands of Syrian fighters.
Turkey is a long-time strategic and military partner of the US, is ranked 17th among the world’s largest economies, is a member of NATO, and hosts some of the US’s largest military and logistics bases in the region.
Nonetheless, Washington’s moves have sometimes upset Ankara, and the relationship between the two remains unstable.
Washington believes Iran poses a threat to the US and its interests in the Middle East, and it therefore thinks US troops must remain in Syria to ensure that Iran does not expand towards the Mediterranean.
It also believes that the threat of IS is not over and could be revived, especially because of the weak regimes in Iraq and Syria that are beholden to Iran.
The US thinks that Russia has largely failed in managing the Syrian conflict and that it blindly supports the regime and has forged an unacceptable alliance with Iran.
Russia, the US thinks, is still committed to the Astana Process, meaning that the US must remain in Syria in order to challenge the Russians and secure its interests.
Finally, the US wants to grab Syria’s oil to prevent terrorist groups, the regime, Iran or Russia from controlling it. Its intention is to keep its forces stationed near Syria’s oil and gas fields, and perhaps this is its real reason for keeping its troops in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The US settles down in Syria