In the wake of President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria — where they’d been deterring a Turkish incursion and thus allowing the Syrian Kurds to continue focusing on counter-ISIS operations — Trump has acquiesced in a different U.S. troop presence in Syria: near Kurdish-held oil fields. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has announced that, despite the new location for U.S. troops, their “mission remains unchanged.” That’s a puzzling statement—especially absent any real explanation for what the troops would be doing and why they’d suddenly be doing it based near Syrian oil resources.
This adjusted U.S. military presence in Syria has raised a range of concerns. Some are legal questions about a deployment seemingly focused, at least geographically, on another country’s natural resources. Others are messaging concerns, given how much this action “plays into toxic Middle Eastern conspiracy theories” of Americans’ desire to profit from Middle Eastern oil, as top U.S. diplomat Bill Roebuck warned in a leaked memo that revealed just how hard America’s diplomats had been working to explain U.S. policy decisions to our partners before Trump’s abrupt pivot. And still others are concerns about the fundamentally irrational nature of this approach. In that respect, I suggested that the linkage between a continued U.S. troop presence in Syria and oil wealth is an exercise designed to elicit Trump’s acquiesce in a continued presence of U.S. forces—hardly a rational approach to national security decision-making.
Despite all of these concerns, my instinct, at least initially, nonetheless had been to regard the continued U.S. troop presence in Syria as making a bad situation less bad, namely by mitigating the effects of Trump’s disastrous and utterly unnecessary withdrawal of U.S. troops from a different part of Syria. It seemed, upon preliminary consideration, that having some U.S. troops somewhere in Syria to fight ISIS could at least help with preventing the group’s resurgence, maintaining some influence over Syria’s future, and facilitating targeted operations like the one that eliminated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—among other potential advantages.
Now I’m beginning to question that. It looks increasingly possible that, without a clear mission and with only contortionist Pentagon justifications and tenuous presidential support, the U.S. troop presence tied to Syrian oil fields may represent not just a legal and messaging problem but a strategic one as well.
First, consider the dimension of the problem internal to the U.S. Government. From all outward appearances, U.S. troops and their commanders seemingly lack a clear understanding of their mission. Public statements that the U.S. troops’ mission remains essentially unchanged, despite Trump’s withdrawal-then-return about-face, would make it hard to fault U.S. service members on the ground from thinking that the counter-ISIS imperative persists—especially given that the ISIS threat certainly persists. Indeed, Secretary Esper himself recently said, “The mission in Syria remains what the mission in Syria began.” It would thus be natural for U.S. troops to attempt to repair and retain the partnership with Syrian Kurds who proved so vital and effective in countering ISIS and depriving it of territory over the past few years. If the U.S. military invests in trying to undo the damage that Trump has inflicted on that partnership, they may set up themselves and their Syrian Kurdish partners for another dangerously abrupt betrayal when Trump undercuts both sides of that partnership yet again. It is, more generally, a dangerous disequilibrium when the stated military mission exceeds the scope of the actual military operation—or, for that matter, vice versa.
Second, consider the external dimension of the problem. The remarkably broad and diverse counter-ISIS coalition was built, in part, by a shared sense of the principal challenges and objectives. It was always clear that the coalition’s future would have to be carefully managed as the challenge posed by ISIS evolved. But now it is utterly unclear what the Trump administration regards as victory or even sufficiency in counter-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq. Though I would have disagreed with these benchmarks, one could at least have imagined Trump regarding the deprivation of ISIS’s territorial control or the group’s loss of its leader as representing the fulfillment of a U.S. mission that Trump seems eager, almost desperate, to conclude. But the current mission in Syria does not appear linked to those markers. And Trump does not seem to have the willingness to understand what many of us urge, which is to see the challenge of addressing ISIS’s continued presence and efforts at resurgence as a longer-term problem to manage. So, what does Trump see as sufficiency in America’s counter-ISIS efforts in Syria and Iraq? Without an answer, it’s hard for U.S. officials to know what to tell coalition partners about why U.S. troops are remaining in Syria, what actions they will take, or how much support those partners can expect from the United States.
Third, consider the terrorist threat that, of course, impelled America’s military intervention in Syria in the first place. A continued U.S. military presence in some form is likely to give hope to our Syrian Kurdish partners that the United States will maintain pressure against ISIS. That, in a sense, invites the Syrian Kurds to focus on the more direct threat that Trump unleashed against them: Turkey’s military operations, now unchecked by the heavy weapons and fighting positions that America itself convinced the Kurds to dismantle as a means of appeasing Turkey. So, as the Kurds fight against Turkey rather than ISIS, and as Turkey fights against the Kurds rather than ISIS, and as Moscow and Damascus focus on retaking territorial control for the Asad regime, and as the U.S. apparently focuses at least partly on oil fields, it may leave no one focused on ISIS—the source of the actual threat to Americans and U.S. allies. And that’s not even mentioning other jihadist groups that continue to operate in Syria and that may pose threats of their own to Americans as well as our allies, partners, and friends.
All told, an altered U.S. troop presence that could seem like making the best of a bad situation might, in fact, be the worst of all worlds. If the Trump administration truly is still committed to countering ISIS—as I strongly believe it should be—then it should make that clear, both internally and externally. Otherwise, it’s possible that a mission built around “selling” the commander-in-chief himself on access to oil may give all parties false hope and misplaced expectations. Ultimately, the current mission might inhibit the best chance for stability in a Syria where Trump insists on reducing U.S. influence: an actual deal between the Syria Kurds, on the one hand, and the Asad regime and the Kremlin, on the other.
It’s hard to know what to make of a U.S. military presence whose mission remains unexplained and whose specific location seems designed to appease those troops’ own commander-in-chief’s other interests. But it’s enough to make one worry that, perhaps, what seems like a well-intentioned effort to mitigate a mess of Trump’s own making ultimately could make matters worse.
Image: A member (L) of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) stands on guard past US military armoured vehicles and soldiers on patrol near an oil well in Rumaylan (Rmeilan) in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on November 6, 2019. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP via Getty Images)