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Paul Iddon

The future of US troops in Syria and Iraq

SDF fighters have been supported by US troops, while Turkey sees them as 'terrorists' [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 March, 2019

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Analysis: With rising anti-US sentiment in both countries, President Trump may not be able to keep troops deployed, even if he wants to, notes Paul Iddon.

US President Donald Trump has, once again, flip-flopped on his stated intention to withdraw all troops from Syria. Now he is supporting a measure that will keep a residual force in the country for the foreseeable future.

"I'm not reversing course," he declared on February 23. "I have done something nobody else has been able to do."

Trump expressed his support for keeping 400 US troops in Syria, reduced from about 2,000, who will, potentially, help bolster another force of, most likely, British and French soldiers.

Of those 400 troops, 200 will stay in northern Syria, where US soldiers have helped the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fight the Islamic State group. The other 200 will be stationed at the small Al-Tanf base, in the south of the country, near Syria's borders with both Iraq and Jordan - a very strategically significant chunk of territory.

This is a significant departure from Trump's declaration last December that he would withdraw all troops - a move which saw his defence secretary General James "Mad Dog" Mattis resign in protest. He later backtracked, claiming he never said when he would actually pull troops out, nevertheless, gave the Pentagon about four months to withdraw.

So long as US troops remain in Syria they will doubtlessly be protected by US air power operating from airbases and seaborne carriers across the region. For the Kurds, this means a de-facto no-fly zone, especially for Damascus, will likely remain over the territories they hold as long as the Americans are in town. 

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have discussed the establishment of a 32-kilometre-deep safe zone along Syria's northern border. This proposal was clearly put forward as an alternative to a Turkish military operation into that region to rout its Syrian Kurdish adversaries, something Erdogan has repeatedly threatened for many months.

If the US is serious about establishing this proposed safe zone then keeping troops of its own on the ground, even if it is just a fraction of the original force it had there hitherto, to help monitor and enforce such a zone will make all the difference.

Throughout the 2016 presidential elections, Trump essentially called for a US drawdown from the rest of the world, a call which ranged from withdrawing troops from the Middle East to defunding the NATO alliance. He was clearly adhering to the isolationist rhetoric and talking points he has, relatively consistently, espoused since at least the 1980s.

Nevertheless, even when he was trumpeting his Syria withdrawal plan in December he remained adamant that the US would retain its troop presence in neighbouring Iraq.

Also in December, as Al-Monitor recently revealed, the Pentagon rerouted millions of dollars worth of weaponry initially intended for the Iraqi military to the SDF to help them rout IS from its remaining redoubt in eastern Syria, 12 days after Trump's withdrawal announcement.

The US currently has approximately 5,000 troops deployed in Iraq, which range from special forces operators to advisers and trainers for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. US forces also operate from the country's Al-Asad airbase in the western Anbar province, where Trump visited troops in December.

Al-Asad is important for the US since it enables it to move troops and equipment quickly to its positions in eastern and southern Syria.

 

The Pentagon notably drew up a plan to "surge" US special forces from Iraq into Syria to combat any IS resurgence there, had Trump gone ahead with his initial plan to withdraw every single US soldier. Al-Asad would have been a very important launchpad for such an effort.

In Iraq the US military has worked directly with the ISF and Peshmerga to remove IS from the one-third of the country it occupied at its peak.

In Syria, on the other hand, the US worked primarily with the SDF to combat IS and deployed troops without coordinating, or gaining the consent of, the Syrian regime. Damascus, along with its backers, Iran and Russia, staunchly opposes the US presence in the country.

In Iraq, there is also very significant opposition to the presence of US troops in the country. This ranges from Iran-aligned political entities in the country to the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr, who consistently espouses a hardline nationalist stance that opposes all foreign forces in Iraq - be they American, Iranian or Turkish.

A significant open-ended US military presence in Iraq could strengthen these sentiments and make it more difficult for Washington to retain its troop presence there. When Trump visited Al-Asad in December, a variety of Iraqi lawmakers expressed outrage over the nature of the visit, which did not involve Trump meeting the Iraqi prime minister nor any officials.

They consequently slammed the whole stunt as a flagrant violation of both diplomatic norms and Iraqi sovereignty.

Trump's subsequent insistence that the US should stay in Iraq to "watch Iran" also sparked a backlash from prominent Iraqis, including the hugely influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who oppose their country being used for such a purpose. Iraqi President Barham Salih reiterated this stance on March 6.

More such activities or declarations from Trump run the serious risk of getting US troops kicked out of Iraq, which will likely make it increasingly more difficult to both logistically and militarily support its small residual troop presence, and allied forces, in Syria.

In Syria too, the regime, having reconquered most of the country, might well try to challenge and undermine the small remaining US presence there more in the not-too-distant future.

Consequently, it may soon prove not to be a question of how long the US will keep its troops in Iraq and Syria but how long it can do so.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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